Baffled by the course of justice

The Baltimore Sun

Other than protoplasm, Matthew James Eastridge and I have little in common.

Eastridge is a drug user. He admits it.

I'm still uneasy about taking my prescribed medications for diabetes and congestive heart failure.

Eastridge has a criminal record. He's been to prison twice and is now serving a 25-year sentence for assault and robbery.

I did 20 years in jail, all spent in one night.

Eastridge is a 44-year-old white guy with blondish hair and a mustache. I'm black, will be 56 in 10 short days and steadily graying. So what did Eastridge and I have in common that day last week as we sat across from each other in the visiting room at the Maryland Correctional Institute at Jessup?

A sense of utter bewilderment.

That emotion was caused by the same thing: Baltimore County Circuit Judge Susan M. Souder's October opinion in which she ruled inadmissible partial fingerprint evidence in a robbery and homicide that occurred at Security Square Mall last year. News story after news story has called Souder's ruling unprecedented.

Eastridge and I found it simply baffling.

You really can't blame Eastridge for feeling this way. Souder is the judge who found him guilty in a Baltimore County Circuit Court last year.

Eastridge was accused of robbing a Royal Farms store in eastern Baltimore County and assaulting the clerk. A co-defendant in the case, Thomas Drew Carr, was the one who actually entered the store, snatched money from the cash register after the clerk opened it and then fled, according to a transcript of Eastridge's trial.

Carr, whose criminal record is as long as or longer than Eastridge's, quickly copped a plea and ratted out Eastridge, who still claims he knew nothing of the robbery. Eastridge said Carr asked him to drive to some apartments near the store. As Eastridge sat waiting, Carr ran up to his truck and started pounding on the door.

"He started beating on the dashboard, [saying] 'Drive! Drive! Drive!'" Eastridge said, according to trial transcripts. "I said. 'What did you do? Burn a drug dealer?'"

Carr eventually bailed out, was caught by police later and claimed he and Eastridge planned the robbery together. Eastridge said police stopped him, found some cash lying near the driver's seat and arrested him as well, according to the trial transcript.

On the witness stand, Carr acknowledged being a patient in both Sheppard Pratt and Spring Grove hospitals. Once Eastridge learned of Souder's ruling that partial fingerprint evidence was unreliable, his first thought was something like, "Oh, and Carr's testimony against me was reliable?"

That's where my sense of bewilderment begins. Eyewitness testimony is more unreliable than partial fingerprint evidence. Eyewitness identification is more unreliable than either.

"The vagaries of eyewitness identification are well known," the U.S. Supreme Court said in the 1967 case U.S. v. Wade. "The annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification."

Yet neither Souder nor any other Maryland judge has ruled eyewitness identification inadmissible. Ditto for eyewitness testimony and the testimony in which one accused criminal flips and fingers another one. (The folks at the Innocence Project have had a field day revealing the number of people wrongly convicted by the latter.)

Souder didn't rule out Carr's testimony in Eastridge's trial, nor should she have. In fact, according to the trial transcript, Souder - who heard the case instead of a jury - seemed to know there were problems with eyewitness testimony.

"Mr. Carr's testimony by itself certainly wouldn't be sufficient to support a conviction here," Souder said, according to the trial transcript.

Souder had to weigh Carr's testimony against that of Eastridge and other witnesses who were in the store and that of police officers. She concluded that Eastridge had lied in two statements to police and found him guilty.

Now, it seems, Souder won't allow a Baltimore County jury to hear testimony from expert witnesses about the reliability or unreliability of partial fingerprint evidence in the trial of Bryan Keith Rose, one of the suspects accused of murdering Jamar Mackie.

Kevin Banks, another suspect, wasn't as lucky when his case went before Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh. Banks' lawyer also asked that partial fingerprint evidence be excluded.

"In this case," Cavanaugh said in a Sun article, "a jury is going to be the trier of the facts."

It's nice to know there's at least one judge in Baltimore County who's not afraid to let a jury be the trier of facts.

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