PRINCE FREDERICK -- The legal travail of Anthony Gray Jr. -- poor, luckless and slow of wit -- began more than seven years ago, when all indications say he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison merely for being in a very frightened place at a very frightening time.
On Monday, Gray is likely to be freed from the prison where he has spent the bulk of his adult life.
In an extraordinary admission, the Calvert County state's attorney will tell a judge here that prosecutors made a horrible mistake: No convincing evidence exists that Gray committed the murder that has kept him behind bars.
Rather, a borderline retarded 31-year-old man has remained jailed largely because of mistakes by an attorney that got him disbarred.
Even after prosecutors jailed the right man for the crime -- in 1997 -- Gray remained at the Maryland House of Correction Annex, the maximum-security prison in Jessup.
At the hearing Monday, the state's attorney, Robert Riddle, will join defense attorney Joel Katz to ask Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee III to free Gray.
His ruling could end a bizarre, racially tinged criminal case that has been the talk, and fear, of this Chesapeake Bay county for years.
"Justice dictates that he be freed from prison," Riddle, the prosecutor, said in an interview this week.
"It's my intention to do what I can to assist in his release. I don't do this lightly. It's simply the right thing to do."
Riddle took office in 1994, after Gray's sentencing in 1992.
He inherited a case in which one defense attorney was disbarred, two other defendants were acquitted and serious doubt swirled about Gray's guilt.
There was good reason: His fingerprints were not found in the victim's house or in her car, which the killer stole and abandoned. Checks stolen from the victim were forged with handwriting that did not match Gray's. An abundance of DNA evidence failed to link Gray to the crime.
Fears remained that the real killer was still walking free. As it turned out, he was.
The case began May 13, 1991, when a 16-year-old girl returned home from school to find the body of her mother, Linda Mae Pellicano, in their home in Chesapeake Beach.
Maryland State Police worked the case. Even their seasoned investigators were shaken by what they saw: Pellicano, 38, had been stabbed in the chest with a notched-edged knife with such force that her sternum was broken.
A sock had been jammed into her mouth, a telephone cord bound around her neck, and a plastic bag wrapped around her head.
Forensic evidence indicated that she was first killed, then raped.
"It was an absolutely heinous, horrific crime in any context," said Katz, the Annapolis defense attorney who took over the case long after Gray's sentencing.
"You can imagine what it did to an area like this one."
Less than 30 miles long and only 5 to 9 miles wide, Calvert County is a mostly peaceful collection of small water towns. At the time of the murder, there were only 51,000 people living there, with no towns larger than 2,500 residents.
The county has long averaged slightly more than one murder per year, even as its population has grown to about 70,000.
As police investigated the Pellicano murder for six weeks, residents lived in fear.
Then Gray, who lived in nearby Sunderland, was arrested along with two other Calvert County men, Paul Marcello Holland and Leonard Anthony Long. No physical evidence linked them to the crime, but investigators got a tip that the three were involved.
All of the men had criminal records. All of them were black, and the victim was white -- which would become significant. Gray has since been assessed as learning impaired, borderline retarded.
Investigators interrogated Gray without an attorney present and told him the other men were snitching on him and he could get the death penalty.
Gray finally told them he had served as a lookout while the others went inside the house to rob the woman.
"When you couple his low intellect with the interrogation methods -- which were leading, to say the least -- you get a confession for a crime he didn't commit," Katz said.
"I have no doubt in my mind that what was in that confession was not what happened."
In fact, there were inconsistencies in his confession indicating he was never at the house.
Nevertheless, prosecutors cut a deal: They would drop any plans for the death penalty or a life sentence and recommend he serve 30 years if he would plead guilty and testify against the other men.
With his attorney at his side, M. Cristina Gutierrez of Baltimore, Gray pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and first-degree rape. Gutierrez said this week that she was unaware he was learning impaired.
And, she said, Gray insisted on pleading guilty.
"He was in a county hostile to blacks, they had this confession, and he could have faced the death penalty," she said.
"I didn't have him plead guilty. That was his choice."
But after Gray's plea, attorney Michael Kent, who represented one of the other defendants, visited Gray and told him not to testify and all three would be freed. Court papers show Kent told Gray he could have his guilty plea set aside.
Kent has since been disbarred for his actions in Gray's case. He was later jailed for swindling $100,000 from a client, his disabled aunt.
He could not be located for comment.
At Kent's suggestion, according to court papers, Gray refused to testify. The agreement in his plea bargain was voided, and he was sentenced to life.
"You want to know how much evidence they had against him?" said Katz. "Just look what happened to the other two."
One of the defendants, Holland of Chesapeake Beach, went to trial as blacks protested outside the courthouse that the three were being made scapegoats to quell the county's fears. Holland was found not guilty.
The case against Long, of Dunkirk, never went to the jury: After prosecutors presented their case, the judge threw it out of court, ruling that no jury could rightly convict based on the evidence.
Katz was Long's attorney for that trial.
Years later, he ran into Gray's family and was appalled to learn that nobody was filing an appeal in his case despite the disbarred attorney's actions and the lack of evidence.
"I was -- and am -- absolutely convinced he played no part," Katz said. "I wouldn't be spending all this time, for almost no money, trying to get him out if I didn't believe that."
Gray has filed papers, accepted by the court, indicating that he does not have the money to pay Katz.
The state's attorney who prosecuted Gray, Warren Sengstack, said yesterday that he was confident of Gray's guilt at the time: "The defendant was arrested, gave a statement implicating himself and others, and he entered a plea of guilty with a competent attorney representing him.
"I know at the time I was very satisfied that he was involved."
Gray's biggest break may have come in 1997, when a man named Anthony Gerald Fleming was arrested for breaking and entering in Calvert. Trying to plea bargain, he told investigators he could help them with the murder case.
"He ended up giving us enough information that we felt he was somehow involved," said Riddle. "One thing led to another, we drew his blood and then we had it confirmed."
The DNA evidence -- which did not implicate Gray -- matched Fleming.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Riddle said Gray was not freed immediately after Fleming's involvement was discovered because it was necessary to investigate Gray's case more before asking a judge to free him.
Gray and his family won't talk with reporters for now. Katz said his client is still not convinced he will be freed. Gray feels burned by the justice system, the attorney said, and is waiting to see what the judge decides.
"I think his emotions are suppressed for now," Katz said. "Until they take off those shackles and he walks out of the courthouse without them, I don't think he's going to be celebrating."
Pub Date: 2/06/99