Prisoner, poet, free

The Baltimore Sun

To the victim's family, Walter Lomax is - and will always be - the man who 39 years ago shot to death Robert L. Brewer, the night manager of a Brooklyn food market.

To the defendant's friends and family, Walter Lomax is a poet and an activist - a man who was wrongly convicted and spent 39 years behind bars before a Baltimore judge freed him by suspending his life prison sentence.

Those two groups, equally fervent in their beliefs, gathered again yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court. This time, Lomax, 59, was asking the judge who ordered his release five months ago to end his unsupervised probation, his final tether to the criminal justice system.

Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin granted Lomax's request, saying: "This is the last chapter in the State vs. Mr. Lomax. The next book will be written by Mr. Lomax."

Yesterday's hearing, just as the one Dec. 13, was more philosophical than jurisdictional. Lomax and Rasin read aloud lines of poetry. He spoke of angels' breath and grasshoppers; she of prison walls not confining his soul.

When Assistant State's Attorney Robyne Szokoly called Lomax a convicted murderer who is not innocent, the judge responded that while his criminal record will always show that he is guilty, "truth is a large concept."

Brewer's relatives said they were expecting such an outcome.

When she addressed the court, Carmen Lott, Brewer's granddaughter said, "I know whatever I say falls on the blind and deaf. Everyone here has their own agenda."

She said the system wants "to clear its conscience [by] overcompensating today for yesterday."

Even though they remain convinced of Lomax's guilt, Brewer's family understands that the defense attorneys, the judge and possibly Lomax himself have become convinced of his innocence. And, looking at him yesterday in court, they can understand why.

He wore a dark suit, his hair in a short braid, and spoke eloquently from the defense table. His attorney, Booth Ripke, talked about how Lomax attends church, gives motivational talks, helps youngsters with their poetry, studies General Assembly bills.

But Brewer's family cannot reconcile this Walter Lomax with the Walter Lomax from almost four decades ago.

He was 21 when he faced trial in the Brewer killing. Carmen Lott was 18 then. She remembers sitting on a courtroom bench. She remembers him being cocky and cold.

He had been convicted as a teenager of unauthorized use of a vehicle and of assault and robbery for participating with a group of about 10 youths in beating up a man walking home from a bar.

Then, as a young man, Lomax was charged with the killings of three men in 1967. He was accused of killing Melvin Saunders, 46, on Nov. 27 at a tavern on Belair Road, Jesse L. Atkinson, 45, on Dec. 2 at a bar in Brooklyn and Brewer, 56, later that night at the nearby food market.

Lott said her grandfather was a compassionate man who would have done anything to help anyone. She said the toll his death took on her grandmother was immense - leaving her too frightened to ever work again and prompting her to sell the family's home, which was behind the market.

Prosecutors tried the Brewer shooting first and after winning a conviction and sentence of life in prison, they dropped the other two cases.

Melody Gerst was 14 years old when she and her mother sat in a car outside Giles Food Market in the 3600 block of 10th St. Her father had run into the store to pick up medicine, but then the girl and her mother noticed it was being held up.

Gerst testified at Lomax's trial, and she attended yesterday's hearing, though she did not speak.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the person I saw was Walter Lomax," she said afterward. "You don't forget that kind of thing."

Lott said her grandmother, Frances Brewer, who worked at the food market and was behind a mirrored window, expressed similar certainty about who the killer was.

"She watched everything," Lott said. "She said she would never forget his face."

Frances Brewer died four years ago. Gerst was interviewed years ago by Centurion Ministries, the Princeton, N.J.-based group that worked for more than a decade to gain Lomax's freedom. But she said that she was not aware of what became of Lomax until she read about his release in the newspaper.

Gerst said yesterday that the judge should feel deceived because "she didn't have all the information. I know she didn't hear anything from me."

Lomax supporters argue the opposite - that the victim's family doesn't have all of the information.

"It's unfortunate that they will live their lives thinking and believing that I am the person responsible for their loved one's death," Lomax said in an interview after court.

He and his attorneys have pointed to myriad problems with the original trial.

Lomax was arrested amid a wave of robberies in South Baltimore and as racial tension swept the city. Police officers rounded up young black men and asked about 75 witnesses from various crimes to pick out suspects.

Gerst and Frances Brewer were two of five white witnesses who identified him as the food market shooter. None of those witnesses said anything about a cast, but medical documents show that Lomax had part of his arm wrapped in a plaster cast at the time.

No other evidence was presented, and no police officer testified.

When she agreed to alter Lomax's sentence from life to life with all but time served suspended, Rasin said she was troubled by the lack of evidence and by the cross-racial identification - which she said studies have shown to be unreliable.

"There is a significant likelihood, definitely a possibility, that Mr. Lomax would be acquitted" if he were on trial today, Rasin said in December.

Yesterday, the judge reiterated those beliefs.

She said "dubious proof" led to his conviction, and that she had "residual doubt" about the case, a phrase she said is most synonymous with "haunting."

"The only thing I am convinced of is that Robert Brewer died too soon," Rasin said.

Only one person in the courtroom, she said, knew for certain if Lomax was indeed guilty - Lomax himself.

Later, Lomax said that "the most important people in the world to me, my family and my friends, have known for quite some time that I'm not guilty."

With the help of Centurion Ministries, Lomax fought for years to prove that he was wrongly convicted. He was represented by Ripke and Larry Nathans - the same lawyers who helped free Michael Austin, a Baltimore man whom Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pardoned and said had been wrongly convicted.

When the judge scheduled a postconviction hearing in the Lomax case, prosecutors said they would not oppose his release. The agreement was for Lomax to retain his first-degree murder conviction but have his prison sentence modified from life to life suspending all but time served.

Any rational person who had spent that much time in prison, Rasin said yesterday, would have made the same decision as Lomax.

Lomax said the unsupervised probation was irrelevant to him. But his attorneys said probation is meant for people who need it. Lomax, Ripke said, does not.

"On a personal level," Ripke said after court, "having it closed now means more than the court will ever know. It's just about a feeling of closure."

When he addressed the court yesterday, Lomax read from Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day." Before she released him in December, Rasin had quoted to him the last line of the poem:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Lomax thrived in prison, educating himself and writing volumes of material that he said he plans to publish.

Since his release, he has received numerous citations and accolades from politicians ranging from Carl O. Snowden, director of civil rights for the attorney general, to House Speaker Michael E. Busch. He has spoken at anti-death penalty rallies and to a Towson University graduate class.

And he has continued writing. Rasin noted that as she ended probation for the man she called "unlike anyone else I have ever sentenced."

"He became the prisoner poet, then the probationer poet," she said of Lomax. "And now he will just be the poet."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

Two headlines in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly described the legal action taken by Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin in the case of Walter Lomax. The judge ordered that Lomax be released from unsupervised probation.The Sun regrets the errors.
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