Climate of fear limits homicide convictions

The Baltimore Sun

Nathaniel Hicks was killed for making fun of his friend's tennis shoes.

A group of people throwing back Hennessy and Coronas in Northeast Baltimore watched the killer fire six shots into a sober Hicks shortly after midnight on Mother's Day 2007.

Detectives collected three witnesses. The best of them, a teenager, was murdered before he could testify. Another witness said she was pulled into the back seat of a car and ordered to change her story. The third denied everything.

At trial, inconsistent stories and substance abuse histories damaged the testimony of the two remaining witnesses, leaving only one juror convinced that Dominick Harrison shot Hicks. On the fourth day of the 11-to-1 standoff, the holdout "caved."

"I couldn't continue to put myself through the yelling and screaming for eight hours a day," the 32-year-old office manager recalled. "It was horrible for me."

The murder case, one of 21 that Baltimore prosecutors lost at trial last year, illustrates a chronic problem in city courts: Too many homicides end with no conviction.

In recent years, many elements of the criminal justice system were changed in a bid to boost conviction rates. Prosecutors gained the power to decide how much evidence is needed to charge someone with murder, which has kept the weakest cases from moving forward. The city focused its resources on violent offenders. Federal prosecutors chipped in. And police and prosecutors received fresh rounds of training.

The result: City prosecutors now abandon far fewer cases - down from a quarter of murder indictments a decade ago to one in 10 now. But in other key measures, not much has changed. The odds of a Baltimore jury's convicting someone of killing another person are a little better than a coin toss.

Some cases fail because of mistakes by police and prosecutors. But even under the best circumstances, prosecutors often can't overcome a street culture that tolerates violence and thrives on fear.

Cases are lost because witnesses pocket information about murders until they're arrested and need a bargaining chip. Those witnesses, often drug addicts, are likely to recant during trial or have rap sheets so long that the jury discounts their testimony.

Jurors are often unwilling to ruin a man's life on the testimony of addicts. They can be suspicious of police, ignore court rules or have unrealistic expectations of forensic science.

All of these issues played a role in the acquittal of 27-year-old Dominick Harrison.

According to witness statements and court testimony, on May 13, Harrison and a group of friends spilled out of the corner bar into the 2500 block of Garrett Ave. Harrison, the drunkest of them all, staggered past boarded-up brick rowhouses.

The group stopped at front steps at a house in the middle of the block, where Davon Qualls, a 16-year-old hothead, dissed Harrison's old-school Diadora tennis shoes. Hicks, 30, a distant cousin of Harrison's known as "Shortman," wouldn't let it go and repeatedly slammed the shoes as "weak."

Prosecutors alleged at trial that a furious Harrison walked across the street to some bushes, grabbed a revolver, returned to the other sidewalk and said: "Shortman, you bitch, joke about this."

It was the kind of crime Baltimore sees all too often, born of a culture that's deadly serious to those in it and baffling to those outside it.

"These mostly young men ... they're driven by a very clear street code, in which the most important element is 'don't let anybody disrespect you,' " said David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "And if you're disrespected, you have to take care of it yourself by doing something violent ... or else risk making your life, your person and your things bait."

From the start, the case was hampered by uncooperative witnesses and a lack of physical evidence.

Despite testimony that 40 or 50 people were on the block when the shooting began, "no witnesses were located," according to detectives' progress reports. A medical examiner extracted four bullets from Hicks' body, but police never found the gun or shell casings. Revolvers don't spit out shell casings.

"Studies have shown that these crime-scene dramas, such as CSI, have done damage to courts across the country," said Maj. Terrence McLarney, who commands the Police Department's homicide unit. "The expectations are unreasonable - just way out there - and some of the science is not even true. ... And the ability to recover fingerprints is way overblown."

On May 23, 2007, district police arrested Damion Johnson, aka Damon Jones, for possessing 25 capsules of heroin. He told detectives that he was one of the guys drinking on the Garrett Avenue steps.

He picked Harrison out of an array of six photos, identified him as the shooter and gave a detailed description of what provoked the argument - down to the brand of Harrison's tennis shoes.

"It was a senseless murder, and it shouldn't have happened," Johnson told detectives.

Six days later, police picked up another witness in a prostitution sting. She told detectives she saw Harrison "standing down in front of the dead victim" and "blue fire" from the gun coming from "Dominick's direction." Police then released her without charges.

On May 28, 2007, police arrested Qualls for a suspected gun crime. Three days later, the teenager picked Harrison out of photo array and told detectives that he watched "Bird" - Harrison's street name - "shoot the person" on Garrett Avenue.

That same day, prosecutors signed off on a warrant charging Harrison with murder.

McLarney said witnesses often save information on serious crimes for "a rainy day" in case they need to bargain with police or prosecutors. That doesn't mean that what the witnesses say isn't true, he said, but it "puts us behind the 8-ball with some jurors" who wonder whether the witnesses would have said anything to escape charges.

But in this case, as in many others, jurors wouldn't get the chance to decide whether one witness' testimony was credible.

Since the infamous Stop Snitching DVD in 2004, the state has tightened penalties for witness intimidation and increased the admissibility of taped statements of reluctant or murdered witnesses. But that hasn't solved the problem.

In September 2007, as Harrison awaited trial in jail, Qualls was shot in the head, neck and chest in the same block as was Hicks.

Qualls' murder was devastating for the state's case against Harrison. Without any evidence linking Harrison to Qualls' death, prosecutor Joshua Felsen couldn't play the teen's taped statement in court.

Compounding the problem, the second witness told Felsen that her "baby's father" and "Wolfie," Harrison's cousin Michael Allen Harris, pulled her into the back of a car and ordered her to change her story. But she refused to put her claim on tape, eliminating the possibility of witness-intimidation charges.

She refused to be placed in witness protection. Felsen had to have her arrested to ensure her testimony.

"The courts are so saturated with cases that it can take a year to get a trial," said attorney Dwight Pettit. "That's plenty of time for a witness to disappear, be intimidated, change their story or recant."

The delay would hurt prosecutors in one more way. In June 2007, Johnson, 36, was sent to prison for 18 months for heroin possession. Long before he came to testify, he completely changed his story.

"He was coming from jail," Harrison's attorney, Walter Balint, said of Johnson's testimony at his client's February 2008 trial. "The code is, if you're in jail, you don't go in and testify against anybody else. ... It's a problem the city has all of the time."

On the witness stand, Johnson denied making the tape-recorded statement, which Felsen played for the jury. Johnson even denied that his mug shot was, in fact, of him.

"One thing which we have no control over is what they say on the witness stand," said State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "That's why we train our attorneys to use prior statements to police."

But in this case, Johnson's earlier statement contained a nagging inconsistency - at one point, he identified the shooter using Harrison's nickname, "Bird," and then corrected himself to say "Nic." Without his cooperation, prosecutors couldn't clear it up.

Balint also sought to discredit the female witness' statement: From a half-block or so away, could the witness really tell who fired the gun?

Two jurors decided to see for themselves.

Circuit Judge Wanda Heard, who presided over Harrison's case, repeatedly told jurors to base their decision solely on what was presented at trial. But the mistrust many city jurors have for police and witnesses who are criminals themselves sometimes leads them to break the rules.

"I believed my fellow jurors all felt police had conspired to convict him unjustly," said the 32-year-old juror who requested anonymity out of fear for her safety. "The majority picked for the jury had other situations they were involved in, situations that would lead them to believe police would do something like that."

The two jurors drove to the scene of the crime, according to juror Jerry Tipton, 60, and the other juror. One went at night and reported back that Garrett Avenue was so dark that there was no way the witness could have seen Harrison shoot Hicks. She then switched her verdict to not guilty.

"Jurors look things up on the Internet, they discuss the case at home, they go to crime scenes ... because most jurors want to make the right decision," said defense attorney Margaret Mead, who estimated that jury misconduct occurs in 70 percent of city trials. "But really, they're screwing it up by not following the rules."

The visits to the crime scene should have resulted in a mistrial. But no one told the judge or the attorneys. Instead, after holding out for four days, the reluctant juror changed her verdict to not guilty, even though she never changed her mind.

The court was done with the case, but the street wasn't.

Harrison was paroled on an unrelated drug charge Aug. 19. Less than two months later, he was shot several times while trying to get into a car around the corner from where Hicks and Qualls died. He survived, but he has difficulty walking, said his grandmother, Eugenia Cole, 81.

Wolfie was next. He was murdered Dec. 5 in the same block as Qualls and Hicks, also while trying to get into his car.

The killer didn't bother to steal the packages of cocaine he was carrying.

Another of Harrison's cousins, who testified that he drove Harrison away from the scene of Hicks' murder, figured he was next and asked that his probation be transferred to another state.

The shooting of Harrison and Wolfie's murder remain unsolved.

"Why do witnesses recant?" Balint said. "So the people who kill their friends and family members are released, and they can seek revenge on the street."

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