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Man exonerated in killing is gunned down in North Baltimore

Antoine Pettiford in a 1999 file photo taken at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Antoine Pettiford in a 1999 file photo taken at the Baltimore City Detention Center.(Jed Kirschbaum /)

In the late 1990s, Antoine Jerome Pettiford became a symbol for a broken justice system in Baltimore. Convicted of murder, his sentence was thrown out after a judge determined authorities had deliberately withheld key information.

He would be charged again and again for various other crimes, and though he scored more legal victories on technicalities, he spent much of the past decade behind bars.

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Then on Tuesday, he became a homicide victim.

Police say Pettiford, 43, was shot multiple times in the 3100 block of Greenmount Ave. about 1:30 a.m., and was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. Detectives declined to release any other details, and relatives could not be reached for comment.

Michelle M. Martz, Pettiford's former attorney who helped fight for his original release, called his death "heartbreaking news."

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, meanwhile, described Pettiford's death as "sad but unfortunately not surprising," saying Baltimore's homicide victims and suspects often "have similar criminal records."

Pettiford's odyssey with the justice system began in 1994. A petty drug dealer with several arrests for selling cocaine in the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital, he was charged that year with killing 22-year-old Oscar Edward Lewis Jr. in East Baltimore. A year later, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.

Pettiford maintained his innocence, and a witness later recanted.

"I don't even know the man. I never met him. They don't know why he got killed. I don't know," Pettiford told Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe at his sentencing. He was given life plus 20 years in prison.

Questions about the case started to mount as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigated a New York-Baltimore drug ring. Two key figures in that case said they had information about Lewis' death that pointed to the involvement of a drug trafficker named Demetrius Bernard Smith, whose goal had been to kill a man who was with Lewis that night.

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Federal prosecutors charged Smith with arranging Lewis' murder, and he admitted his role in the slaying. At Smith's sentencing, where he received 40 years in prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert R. Harding told the judge that Pettiford might not have been involved in the murder at all.

"Smith sent word through his attorney that Pettiford was innocent and that he did not even know Pettiford," federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing. "Smith then refused to cooperate in any way."

But Pettiford remained behind bars. A young attorney, Martz, took up his case, submitting a public records request for the homicide unit's file. She found material that pinned the killing on other suspects who had not been disclosed to Pettiford and his attorney, despite a law requiring prosecutors to do so. That information included a witness statement that identified other suspects and provided a detailed description of the man who later pleaded guilty to the murder.

The prosecutor on the case, Nancy Beth Pollack, acknowledged in 1998 that evidence wasn't properly disclosed and that Pettiford's conviction should be thrown out. She wanted to retry him, but also said that if he took a plea deal, he could walk out of prison that day.

Distrustful of the justice system, Pettiford took the quicker route to freedom, entering an Alford plea, which placed a manslaughter conviction on his record but allowed him to maintain his innocence.

The Baltimore Sun covered the case extensively in 1999 — even hiring an expert to administer a polygraph test to Pettiford, which he passed when he said he wasn't involved in Lewis' killing.

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"This kind of thing should never happen," then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said at the time of the prosecution's failure to disclose evidence. "It's devastating, both to our efforts to control crime and to uphold our constitutional system of justice."

Then-Del. Peter Franchot, now the state's comptroller, said prosecutors' behavior "destroys public confidence in the justice system," and he threatened to withhold $500,000 in state funds from the state's attorney's office.

In 2000, prosecutors officially dismissed the manslaughter charge against Pettiford. Judge Ellen Heller said it would be a "miscarriage of justice" to allow the conviction to stand, and criticized city prosecutors and particularly the detective who worked the case, Bobby Patton. She said he had deliberately attempted to mislead Pettiford's defense.

Patton, a veteran homicide detective, continued to work homicides until his retirement 2009. Reached for comment Friday, Patton said he was sorry to hear Pettiford had been killed but maintained his belief that Pettiford was involved in Lewis' murder.

"The murder that I charged him with, he did," Patton said. "How federal informants switched it around and said he wasn't there, when eyewitnesses say he was — it was a matter of who they wanted to believe."

Two years after Pettiford's release, he was charged in a road-rage shooting in Northeast Baltimore.

The U.S. attorney's office, which played a key role in freeing Pettiford in the earlier killing, took up the prosecution at the city's urging. He was indicted on a gun charge, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Pettiford began chipping away at the case using a process called coram nobis petitions, or requests to address previous errors in cases. The length of his federal sentence had been dictated by previous convictions in state court unrelated to Lewis' murder, and Pettiford filed motions and convinced the court to vacate two of them. Seven years later, he got another of his previous convictions — a 2001 second-degree assault charge — vacated.

In one case, Pettiford argued that the courts had wrongly dismissed his notice of an appeal by not alerting him to a hearing and failing to establish that he had "knowingly and intelligently waived his right to be present." When the court took up the case again in 2011, prosecutors said they no longer had sufficient evidence and dismissed the charge.In two other cases, he said that the court had illegally imposed jail time as a condition of probation that was "irreconcilable" with what Pettiford believed he was agreeing to when he pleaded guilty.

His new attorney, Paresh Patel, argued that Pettiford could no longer be considered an "armed career criminal," and U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz agreed.

Pettiford was released on Feb. 19, 2013.

Patel was not available for comment Friday. Rosenstein, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland, said Pettiford's ability to get his old state convictions overturned was a "bizarre and dangerous aspect of Maryland's criminal justice system" and called it "probably one of the reasons why Maryland's murder rate is consistently higher than other states."

"Innocent defendants should go free, and procedural errors should be corrected if there is timely objection," Rosenstein said in an email. "But a rational criminal justice system should not allow a repeat offender to wipe out prior convictions many years after the fact, when there is no dispute that he actually committed the crimes.

"The problem is that the system is designed to be gamed if it allows criminals without any claim of innocence to raise technical objections after the witnesses' memories have faded, the evidence has been destroyed and they have served their sentences."

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Court records show Pettiford was indicted not long after on separate assault and drug-related charges in May 2013, both of which were subsequently dropped.

He was due in court Jan. 8 for an arraignment on new assault and reckless endangerment charges.

Anyone with information about Pettiford's killing was asked to call homicide detectives at 410-396-2100.

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