Federal prosecutors are reviewing the Joel J. Lee case -- which created a racially charged furor when the man accused of killing the Korean-American was acquitted last month -- to see if it may merit a U.S. civil rights investigation.
Prosecutors have obtained witness statements and grand jury transcripts of the Baltimore Circuit Court trial and have met with the victim's father, Kenneth Lee, as part of their preliminary review of the case, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said yesterday.
"I met with Mr. Lee for a lengthy period of time . . . to talk about his concerns. We're looking at the civil rights statutes," Ms. Battaglia said yesterday. "What we're doing is reviewing statements and the transcripts and talking to the prosecutors in the city."
Carmina S. Hughes, the assistant U.S. attorney who is reviewing the case, called the review "very preliminary" and said federal statutes have narrowly defined criteria for launching a civil rights investigation.
"We can only invoke the civil rights statute under very limited circumstances," Ms. Hughes said. "We're looking into it, not to second-guess the state investigation, but to see if there may have been any type of conspiracy involved."
Federal civil rights statutes define conspiracy as two or more persons plotting together to "injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate" another person.
City prosecutors had argued during the trial that the killer of Joel Lee acted alone, a theory the federal government would have to revamp or disprove altogether. The review's findings will be referred to the U.S.Department of Justice for a recommendation.
A Baltimore jury found Davon A. Neverdon, 20, not guilty on all counts July 28, rejecting testimony from four eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen Mr. Neverdon shoot Joel Lee in the face during a $20 robbery in the parking lot of a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex.
Three of those witnesses were friends of Mr. Neverdon who testified they were with him the night of the slaying. Saying they feared for theirlives, they didn't report what they saw to police for seven months.
The witnesses' failure to come forward, along with the testimony of another man who said he arranged to get rid of the handgun he knew had been used in the killing, are possible grounds for a conspiracy theory, according to Kenneth Lee and his supporters.
"I'm not going to get back my son. But I asked them to please do something to keep hope in the American justice system," said Mr. Lee, an Ellicott City resident and vice president of the Korean Society of Maryland."This is a bad case. People are saying there is no justice."
Mr. Lee said after the verdict that he felt race played a part in the verdict because 11 of the 12 jurors were black, his son was Korean-American, and Mr. Neverdon is black. Korean-American leaders led a protest of about 150 people outside the city courthouse Aug. 2.
Francey Lim Youngberg, a spokeswoman for the Asian-Pacific American Bar Association in Washington, which is helping Mr. Lee in his appeal to federal prosecutors, said it will be difficult for federal officials to seek indictments.
"It's an encouraging note and I have confidence they [the federal prosecutors] will do a thorough inquiry," Ms. Youngberg said. "But it's not going to be easy for them."
According to court testimony, Mr. Neverdon and his friends were walking together when Mr. Neverdon broke off from the group and approached Joel Lee, a 21-year-old Towson State University student who was looking for a friend's apartment to borrow a book.
Joel Lee was shot just below the right eye because he didn't turn over his wallet fast enough, the witnesses testified.
The four teen-agers ran to Mr. Neverdon's nearby apartment, where he supposedly declared, "If anybody tells, I'm going to kill 'em," according to the witness testimony of Edward Knox Jr., now a freshman at Morgan State University.
A man who is serving a 10-year sentence on an unrelated assault charge in Connecticut, Gerald Horne, came to Baltimore to testify that Mr. Neverdon gave him the .25-caliber handgun used in the killing. He said he got rid of the weapon after Mr. Neverdon told him he had used it to kill someone.
Mr. Neverdon is still jailed. He faces a charge of drug distribution in Harford County, where he was taken into custody in June 1994.