PRINCE FREDERICK -- More than seven years after being arrested and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit, a 31-year-old borderline retarded man walked out of the Calvert County Courthouse yesterday, free.
With his first breaths of regained freedom, Anthony Gray Jr. shed the two county deputies escorting him to the courthouse lobby and squeezed into the waiting arms of his weeping mother, Corine Reed. "Thank the Lord, thank the Lord, thank the Lord," she said and brushed the tears from her cheeks onto her son's shoulder as they swayed, hugging.
"It's been a living hell," Gray said.
"A living hell," his mother echoed.
Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee III freed Gray at the request of defense attorney Joel L. Katz of Annapolis and the Calvert County state's attorney, Robert Riddle, who Gray's family called "a hero."
In the same courtroom where another prosecutor once insisted that Gray be locked away for life, Riddle stood before the judge yesterday morning and told him the defense's claims were true: No credible evidence against Gray exists, and the young man's previous attorney -- as well as justice -- had failed him.
The judge agreed.
"I can understand why Mr. Gray may not have all the faith in the world in the justice system," McKee said. With that, he ordered Gray released, and 20 family members and friends applauded.
"Thank you," Gray said to the judge.
McKee's ruling ended the criminal aspects of the case, but Katz said lawsuits against the state and Gray's earlier attorneys, including Baltimore's M. Cristina Gutierrez, are likely.
Gray's family has suffered as well, Katz said. For years after Gray's arrest, the family home was vandalized, with mailboxes smashed and deer heads tossed on the front lawn.
"This is a young man who lost almost eight years of his life because of mistakes that other people are responsible for," Katz said. "It was injustice, pure and simple, to him and his family. I just thank God they didn't give him the death penalty. Where there is life, there is hope."
Gray's ordeal began with the death in May 1991 of Linda May Pellicano, a 38-year-old woman who was raped, stabbed and suffocated in her home in the usually tranquil town of Chesapeake Beach. Six weeks after the murder, Gray was arrested with two other men.
No physical evidence linked them to the crime. But after hours of being interrogated without an attorney present, Gray told investigators he had waited outside the house on the day of the killing while the other suspects were inside.
The defense attorney maintains that Gray -- who dropped out of special-education classes at Northern High School in Sunderland -- was tricked into confessing. According to Katz, investigators told Gray the other men were blaming him for the killing and he had a choice: Confess or face the death penalty.
He confessed. Then, with Gutierrez at his side, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape charges. His later efforts to recant were refused.
"They were trying to get me the death penalty for something I didn't do," Gray told reporters yesterday, explaining his plea. "Why should I die for something I didn't do?"
His appellate attorney, Michael Kent of Annapolis, failed to appeal or file standard court motions. It was those failures -- "inadequacy of counsel" -- that allowed the judge to free Gray. Kent could not be reached for comment.
Important issues that might have been used in an appeal were never raised in court: Fingerprints found at the crime scene did not match Gray's or those of the other suspects; no evidence existed that Gray or the others had been in the victim's car, which had been stolen after the killing; and DNA evidence recovered from the scene did not match any of the men.
The men arrested with Gray were acquitted; the judge threw out one of the cases, ruling no jury could convict based on the evidence presented by prosecutors.
(Before representing Gray, Kent represented one of the men arrested with him. According to court papers, Kent was disbarred for discouraging Gray from testifying against his client. Later, Kent was convicted and jailed for swindling $100,000 from his disabled aunt.)
Katz called Kent's behavior "deplorable." He contended that Gutierrez should have known about Gray's mental capacity and said he would investigate a malpractice claim against her as well as Kent.
Gutierrez did not return a telephone message seeking comment yesterday, but last week told The Sun that Gray's family never mentioned his limited intelligence until after he was sentenced.
She said Gray had insisted on pleading guilty. Gray told reporters yesterday that that was untrue.
"We plan to thoroughly investigate the actions of both attorneys," Katz said.
A fourth man, Anthony Fleming, was arrested in 1997 in an unrelated crime. After he told prosecutors he had information about the Pellicano slaying, his DNA was tested and matched that recovered from the crime scene. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence at the Maryland House of Correction Annex, the same maximum-security prison that Gray was freed from yesterday.
The prosecutor, who took office after Gray's sentencing and who prosecuted Fleming, declined to assign blame for Gray's imprisonment.
"There was justice today," Riddle said outside the courtroom. "You know how I feel today? I feel blessed. I feel blessed that I get to get up, do my job every day and then I get a chance to do something like this."
Gray said he plans "to get a job and go to work."
His mother said she never gave up hope that her son would be freed.
"The Lord put Mr. Riddle in there and Mr. Katz in there, and I said, 'I'll leave it to the Lord now.' The Lord worked."
Kermit Gray, Anthony's older brother, said the family harbored no bitterness, only disappointment at Anthony's imprisonment and joy over his release.
"I feel justice had been done, but it could have been done eight years ago," he said. "We're going home to rejoice. We need to get him back into the stream of things. You come out after almost eight years and it's a big world out here."
Pub Date: 2/09/99