Five years after he was convicted of murder, Antoine J. Pettiford might finally get to clear his name, after a Baltimore judge ruled yesterday that the many evidence violations in his case were inexcusable.
In granting Pettiford the right to a new trial, Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller criticized city prosecutors and police but singled out actions by homicide Detective Robert L. Patton as a "deliberate" attempt to mislead Pettiford's defense.
"This is unforgiving," Heller ruled. "The game isn't about getting a conviction. The game isn't about hiding smoking guns and hiding evidence. It's about disclosing relevant evidence."
"It would be a miscarriage of justice to let the guilty plea stand," she said.
Prosecutors said yesterday that they have not decided whether to drop charges or take Pettiford to trial again. The judge called the evidence "very circumstantial" and suggested it was riddled with problems, pointing to two witnesses who have recanted.
Assistant State's Attorney Donald J. Giblin said, "We'll make a decision and we'll do what we are going to do."
Pettiford, 29, who has maintained his innocence and passed a polygraph test administered at the request of The Sun, said he was pleased with the judge's decision.
"It's come to light. I didn't do it," Pettiford said. "I'm happy that a judge is finally seeing that police and state's attorneys make a lot of mistakes."
Yesterday's ruling was the latest development in the tortuous path Pettiford's case has taken since he was convicted in June 1995 of murdering Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. in a gangland-style shooting in East Baltimore.
The following year, another man was convicted in U.S. District Court of committing the crime. That man, Demetrius Smith, told his lawyer that he had never heard of Pettiford.
In July 1998, in Circuit Court, Heller erased Pettiford's murder conviction after deciding that police and prosecutors had not revealed critical evidence to Pettiford's lawyer before the trial that could have helped his defense. The evidence was a statement from Lewis' best friend, Dante Todd, in May 1994 that pinned the murder on Smith, who pleaded guilty to the crime in May 1996.
Heller granted Pettiford the chance for a new trial, but Pettiford, distrustful of the system and eager to be released from prison, accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to go free that day while maintaining his innocence. In exchange, a manslaughter conviction was placed on his record.
What Pettiford and his lawyer Michelle Martz-Bowles didn't know in July 1998 was that even more evidence that would have helped clear him had not been turned over. That evidence came to light in July 1999 when The Sun reviewed Pettiford's case.
The newspaper found records in the case file at the city courthouse that showed Patton had continued contact with Todd, and that Todd had provided Patton with names and details about two others involved in the shooting on July 7 and July 16, 1994. That information was never given to Pettiford's attorney, despite Heller's 1998 order that all evidence that could help Pettiford be revealed.
Charging that the new information was a continued violation of evidence rules, Martz-Bowles and attorney Fred Warren Bennett asked that the manslaughter conviction be erased last summer. Martz-Bowles said she would never have allowed Pettiford to accept the plea bargain if she had known about the additional evidence.
At hearings yesterday and two weeks ago, prosecutors argued that Martz-Bowles had received the information. Patton testified that he had handed Martz-Bowles the statements on top of a pile of other documents, because he knew of their importance.
"If she didn't read it or use it, that's not my fault," Patton said.
Heller rejected Patton's testimony.
"There was, especially on Detective Patton's part, a deliberate omission to point out that Todd had made a second statement," Heller said in her ruling.
Patton did not respond yesterday when a reporter asked him by telephone to respond to Heller's comments.
The original prosecutor in the case, Nancy Pollack, was forced to resign from the office shortly before the Sun article appeared. Patton testified yesterday that he gave all of the information about Todd to Pollack before Pettiford's first trial in 1994.
Heller, who has presided over several hearings involving the case in the past two years, said, "The whole story has unfolded, and it has turned out that the whole story has been in the hands of the state since 1994."