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Maryland appeals court overturns conviction in Shady Side double homicide

A Shady Side man could receive a new trial after a Special Appeals Court panel found the judge who heard the original case erred in allowing expert testimony.

Kirk Byron Matthews, 60, appealed his murder conviction in a 2017 double shooting that killed two people, Leslie Michael Smith, 48, and his live-in companion Linda Lynn McKenzie, 44, near the Scott Town Road neighborhood. Prosecutors, in a case that spanned two years, told jurors Matthews was an enforcer in the area, an armed guard of sorts who maintained order so a nearby drug market didn’t attract police activity.

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Some witnesses, who testified to being drunk or high at the time of the shooting, said they saw Matthews holding a shotgun at the scene just after shots rang out.

But one woman, whose husband made the initial 911 call, told jurors she saw a tall, thin white man with a gun walk past her house before hearing gunshots. Matthews is Black and either 5-foot, 6-inches tall or 5-foot, 8; descriptions of his height differ between court records.

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County Circuit Judge Laura Ripken, who has since been appointed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, sentenced Matthews to 80 years in prison. “I am convinced you did it,” Ripken said during the January 2019 sentencing hearing. She was not involved in the appeal, nor the decision to publicize the court’s opinion.

Matthews has maintained he did not commit the crime since being charged in 2017. He filed an appeal of his conviction shortly after sentencing, taking issue with three aspects of the prosecution and the court’s decisions in the original trial.

The appeals court panel, comprising Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff, Douglas Nazarian and Paul Alpert, agreed with one of Matthews’ objections: that Ripken should not have allowed expert testimony from an FBI physical scientist who analyzed footage of the incident to determine the shooter’s height.

Kimberly Meline, the expert witness, used photogrammetry, a science that involves taking measurements from photographs to determine the height, length or width of an object in that image. Meline testified the suspect’s height would be about 5-feet, 9-inches with a .67 inch margin of error, but acknowledged she couldn’t account for how several unknown factors, including the terrain of the ground pictured and the inability to see the suspect’s feet, could change her measurement.

Matthews’ defense motioned to prevent Meline from testifying, but Ripken denied the motion, allowing the testimony to proceed.

Nazarian, writing the opinion for the appeals court, said height mattered in this case, as one witness “testified that the man she saw walking past her house with a gun was 5′11″ or taller, white and in his mid-20s; Mr. Matthews is African-American and was 5′8″, and the contemporaneous videos weren’t clear enough to allow a distinction even between these two possible suspects.”

Though the defense was able to cross-examine Meline to poke holes in her testimony, “it should not have fallen to the jury to work through the science on its own,” Nazarian wrote.

A new date has not been set for further proceedings in the case. The Anne Arundel County state’s attorney’s office could not be reached Saturday.

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