Lawyer seeks new hearing in 1972 murder conviction

The Baltimore Sun

Even in the pile of desperation that is Suzanne Drouet's mail - the inmates saying they were wrongfully convicted, the family members begging the Maryland Innocence Project for help - the letter from Jesse Barnes stood out.

At 17, he had been accused of killing his 15-year-old girlfriend. He had no prior record. There were no witnesses or physical or scientific evidence connecting him to the crime. There was only a confession.

Barnes - who had been classified as "mentally defective" on a school evaluation - signed the confession after 32 hours in police custody and seven hours of interrogation. He was convicted of first-degree murder in Baltimore Circuit Court in 1972. More than three decades later, Drouet received his letter.

"I read the transcript and I was horrified," said Drouet, a public defender with the Innocence Project. "I couldn't let it go. It was so tragic."

She was shocked that the case amounted to no more than Barnes' statement, which conflicts with what is known about the crime. Witnesses who could provide Barnes with an alibi were not put on the stand, and the jury never learned of his mental deficiencies. Drouet is asking a Baltimore judge to grant Barnes, 55, a hearing to present evidence she has uncovered, some of it detailed in a motion filed last month.

But proving Barnes' innocence will be tough because there is no DNA evidence. In most wrongful conviction cases that have been reopened in recent years, defenders were able to show that a convict's DNA did not match blood or bodily fluids from crime scenes. Now that many such cases have been brought to court, innocence advocates are turning to murkier cases likes Barnes'.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney said the office would not comment on the specifics of the Barnes case. Margaret T. Burns said a prosecutor will be assigned and will respond with oral or written arguments. Last year, between April 28 and the end of December, the office received 85 motions to reopen homicide convictions.

"It's not uncommon for our office to receive a very detailed motion with sweeping allegations of ineffective counsel or legal issues, and the opportunity to defend our conviction is at the motions hearing," Burns said. She said almost all convictions are upheld.

Barnes has maintained his innocence since signing the confession statement, which was typed by police, on May 3, 1971. He said he did not read the statement because, even at age 17, he could barely read.

"I was trying to tell them no, and they said, 'You're lying,' " Barnes said in a recent phone interview from a state prison in Hagerstown, where he is serving a life sentence. "They said she was raped. They showed me pictures of her beating and that tore me up because I used to love her. I had a lot of feelings for her."

It is impossible to know exactly what happened in the early morning of May 1, 1971. The details were not brought up at the trial, leaving only 38-year-old police reports and contradictory statements.

Cynthia Vaughn had left home without her parents' knowledge and gone to a party in South Baltimore. She and a friend took a bus back to Cherry Hill and parted around 1 a.m., according to the friend's statement to police.

Barnes had been in East Baltimore and returned home around midnight, statements show. After his mother said that Vaughn's mother was looking for the girl, Barnes joined the search, according to statements of people who were with him. He and a family friend visited Vaughn's mother several times. Barnes and Vaughn's stepfather spent an hour looking for her, from 2:15 to 3:15 a.m.

The friend, who lived with Barnes' family, told police Barnes was home for the rest of the night. Police theorized Vaughn was killed shortly after she was last seen alive, 1 a.m., but her autopsy report gave no time of death.

Her body was found at 11:30 a.m. by two boys walking their dog in Cherry Hill Park. She had been stabbed in the face and neck. An artery was cut and she apparently bled to death.

Because the death was so gruesome, it is significant, Drouet says, that none of the people who were with Barnes that night ever told police that they saw blood on his clothing or that he changed clothes or acted oddly. Their accounts of Barnes' behavior and whereabouts were not brought up at trial - though that would have given him an alibi.

"At a certain point, it becomes really unlikely that you manage to commit this nasty, bloody murder and keep coming and going," Drouet said.

She filed a public information act request to obtain the homicide file from Baltimore police. She obtained Barnes' school records from the Department of Corrections, visited the crime scene and spoke with people who grew up with him during her investigation.

Police brought Barnes in for questioning the day after Cynthia's body was found. He was held for more than 24 hours without being presented before a magistrate or given a lawyer. He ate nothing during that period, records show. Then the interrogation began. He gave two accounts, which conflict with each other and with the statements of others.

At first, he told police he saw Cynthia on the street around 1 a.m. and they argued at the swimming pool at Cherry Hill Park. Other people arrived, attacked her and threatened him, and he left. In the second account, he and two people were in a car when they saw Cynthia. They took her to the pool, attacked and raped her.

At trial, police said the second was the true account. But no blood was found by the pool, nor was there any evidence that a body was dragged across several hundred yards of grass to the riverbank, where she was found.

Further, in the autopsy report, the medical examiner found "no evidence of recent injury to the external genitalia or anus," despite the statement's graphic account of a rape. Drouet recently asked Dr. Richard T. Callery, the chief medical examiner for Delaware, to compare the autopsy report in the case with Barnes' statement and other evidence.

Callery wrote that Vaughn's injuries "are inconsistent with a violent rape of a young woman by three robust males." Drouet summarized his report in last month's motion.

She believes the police concocted the rape story to provide a motive. Barnes was not charged with rape. No one else was charged in connection with the case. Baltimore police declined to comment on Drouet's efforts.

Several people told The Baltimore Sun that Barnes' confession doesn't square with the person they knew.

"He was very timid, very shy, very quiet," said Mabel Ricks, 53, a neighborhood friend of Barnes'. Her mother, Marion Pinkey, described Barnes as "mannerly" and "respectful" - the kind of kid who would run to the store for her.

Barnes' appeals, in 1973 and 1977, were denied. State law does not permit more appeals but does allow a case to be reopened "in the interests of justice." Drouet is invoking that exception.

Her effort centers on Barnes' arrest, which she contends was illegal because police lacked probable cause, as well as legal issues related to jury instructions and sentencing.

She said the trial counsel was ineffective because he did not challenge the arrest or present evidence of Barnes' whereabouts. The court also did not hear of Barnes' mental limitations, which coupled with his youth would have made a false confession more likely, Drouet said. His attorney did not return a message left at his office.

The attorney unsuccessfully tried to suppress Barnes' confession, pinning his defense at trial on the circumstances of the interrogation. The one defense witness was a friend of Barnes' who testified only about his own questioning by police.

Barnes had dropped out of school around ninth grade. Records show he was in special education and failed many of his classes. In prison, he learned to read and earned an eighth grade certificate. Now, Barnes said, he spends his days praying and reading. He also once participated in work release.

Mabel Ricks has occasionally visited Barnes in Hagerstown. "We've just been trying to get him to hold on and keep the faith," she said, "because he never had a chance to live his life."

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