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Man gets a new bid for justice; Beating case pitted police vs. prosecutors; second trial ordered

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Convicted felon Brady Spicer has what he has long clamored for. He has convinced a federal judge that he deserves a new trial.

But after seven years in prison, the 42-year-old Annapolis man wonders: Now what?

While county prosecutors weigh whether to retry him for assault with intent to murder a popular Annapolis bar owner, he, too, must decide what to do. Prosecutors have one month to decide if they want to appeal the federal ruling and another three to decide on a new trial.

So Spicer sits in the dim light of a blue jail room, vacillating between elation so high he can't finish a sentence and fear so deep that his eyes pool with tears.

"I cry a lot now," he said last week.

He is so agitated that he has stomach pains. "I want to be free, and I think how I should be free. If they were to let me go, I don't know what I would do."

He has no home. The only one who would accept years of collect calls from prison in Hagerstown and keep writing to him is his sister in Cambridge. The woman with whom he lived in Annapolis in 1992 wed someone else.

Spicer has $57, a color television and the most valuable 34 pages of print he's ever seen: the Dec. 29 ruling by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte saying he did not get a fair trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court and Messitte's order that prosecutors either retry the 42-year-old man within four months or free him.

Maybe he wants a new trial; maybe he shouldn't take a chance. Maybe he should try for a deal. If prosecutors appeal the federal ruling, they might win and he would serve the rest of his 30-year sentence.

Thomas J. Pryal, an assistant state's attorney, said prosecutors might want to appeal, which would keep Spicer incarcerated. They are reviewing evidence to decide if the case can be won after all this time and with police as likely defense witnesses. A deal is possible.

"I certainly have listened to all those people who had doubts, at least the ones who spoke with me about it. I was not convinced by their logic," said Pryal, who fought Spicer's post-conviction appeal and who noted that every state judge who reviewed the verdict upheld it. "No one has ever been able to show me anything that is inconsistent with the verdict."

After exhausting his state appeals, Spicer wrote to U.S. District Court in Baltimore in 1997, and Messitte was assigned the case.

"This case gives me serious pause," Messitte wrote to officials after reading transcripts last summer. He faulted Spicer's defense lawyer, James S. Salkin, and pointed to discrepancies in the words of a witness who swapped testimony for probation.

Jonathan P. Van Hoven, the attorney assigned to try to win Spicer a new trial, put it differently: "This is one of the most bizarre cases I've ever been involved in."

It pitted Annapolis police, who doubt Spicer committed the crime, against prosecutors, who are convinced the jury was right. It led to a shouting match between David Cordle, an investigator for the state's attorney's office, who thought the investigation was incomplete, and Steven Sindler, the assistant state's attorney who maintains that he had a solid case.

Cordle, who would not comment for this article, and several city police officers testified for Spicer at his 1996 hearing for a new trial in Anne Arundel County.

Francis Denvir, then owner of Armadillo's restaurant at City Dock, was counting cash upstairs at lunch time Feb. 22, 1990, when he was beaten nearly to death. He never saw the attacker who smashed his face with whiskey bottles, breaking nearly every bone. Denvir was left with permanent vision, hearing, taste and smell loss.

Startled by the bartender, the assailant took off, leaving more than $1,500 in cash. The attack scared other downtown workers, who raised money for Denvir.

As the Annapolis Police Department's leads fizzled, Denvir grew uncooperative, police said. Denvir did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.

The case remained dormant until Larry Michael Brown of Annapolis approached Sindler with a new lead, resulting in Spicer's indictment in October 1991.

Messitte and others had little confidence in the identification of Spicer given by Brown, who had several drug convictions on his record, and two others.

"The star witness had every reason to lie," said Capt. John Wright, who oversaw the Annapolis police investigation.

Brown told his lawyer that Spicer said incriminating things to him a few days before and after Denvir's beating. He told Sindler, then a grand jury and later the trial jury that he was at work shucking oysters at the Market House, less than a block from Armadillo's, the day of the attack and saw Spicer running from the scene.

But no records confirmed Brown was working that day, and Brown was facing a 20-year prison term if convicted on his third drug charge.

Brown violated his probation and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Henry Connick, the bartender who chased the assailant, described a man about 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing no more than 180 pounds. Spicer is 6 feet, 4 inches, and weighs nearly 250 pounds. No one made an issue of that during the trial, and Connick said he was "almost positive" in identifying Spicer.

Sam Novella, who saw the chase, testified that Spicer looked "very, very familiar," which was not challenged in court. Novella, who was not due to testify, watched part of the trial before he was called, despite Judge Eugene M. Lerner's barring witnesses from the courtroom. Sindler said last week that Novella called him a few days after the trial to say he was certain he identified the right man.

Witnesses said the man "ran faster than Jesse Owens," as Spicer recounted it. But Spicer suffered a broken kneecap about two years earlier and says he runs with a limp. Neither medical records nor expert testimony were introduced to confirm that.

Despite Messitte's reservations, Sindler, now in private practice in Odenton, said he is not swayed.

"Judge Messitte's position, I think, stretches the facts of the case. It is an attempt to find an answer to these general concerns that he wasn't given a fair trial," said Sindler, who suggested Spicer look for a deal with prosecutors and forget proving his innocence before a jury.

"Brady Spicer, I think, has gotten a great break here. He should take that and thank his lucky stars," he said.

Sindler blamed city police for blowing the case and not turning up any physical evidence.

"He is welcome to think we botched it. I think he did," said Wright. "I don't think the first trial was a fair trial."

"The person who really did it is walking around free. The only consolation in this whole thing is that I didn't put him there and neither did my detectives," said Wright, who retired in 1996.

That is some consolation to the graying Spicer, who never thought police officers would go to bat for him. Still, he says he suspects prosecutors also believe they locked up the wrong man but refuse to acknowledge it.

In one sense, he wants an apology. In the next breath, he says, no apology can replace the years he lost while chopping carrots, making envelopes and trying to write a screenplay in prison. "I'm definitely mad."

He sits on his bunk and worries. "I'm kind of nervous. The easiest thing to do is get in prison; the hardest thing is trying to get out."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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