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Crime

A retired Baltimore crime scene technician wouldn’t testify at a murder trial. The prosecutor had her arrested.

Nancy Morse, 64, at her home in Northeast Baltimore. Morse retired as a crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department in 2020.

The retired Baltimore crime lab technician walked into court in handcuffs and shackles, just like the man standing trial for a double murder that she helped investigate.

More than two years ago, in the dark and frigid early morning hours of Nov. 14, 2019, Nancy Morse shined a spotlight as she scoured a Southwest Baltimore sidewalk and alley for evidence in the fatal shootings of a man and woman. The 16-year crime lab veteran picked up spent cartridge casings and bullet jacket fragments.

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Eventually, that ammunition served as the foundation for the state’s case against Kiray Walker: A city firearms examiner testified that the 9 mm ammunition found on McHenry Street and in Goldsmith Alley was fired by a handgun that Baltimore County Police confiscated from Walker at the end of a four-hour crime spree.

Without Morse’s testimony about how she photographed, packaged and submitted the ammunition as evidence, it might not be admitted at trial — a potentially fatal blow for the state’s case.

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But by the time of the trial earlier this month, Morse had been retired for more than two years. Now 64, she’d spent much of that time forgetting about the horrible things she documented as evidence of crimes in a murderous city.

She ducked subpoenas and told the first police officer who came to her door in Northeast Baltimore that she wouldn’t comply with the court order summoning her as a witness. She then ignored more than a dozen other visits from detectives and the prosecutor himself.

“The point is: I’m retired,” Morse said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “I’ve worked all my life. I couldn’t wait to be free. I see retirement as freedom. That is the most stressful thing, to go to court, for me and relive all this stuff.”

Nancy Morse, 64, retired as a crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department in 2020. When she refused to testify recently in a double murder trial, she was arrested and arrived in court in shackles and handcuffs.

A city police manual says officers summoned to testify within a year of retirement are entitled to a $50 fee from the department.

It’s unclear whether that applies to civilian employees, like crime scene technicians, or retirees called to court after a year out of the job. A Baltimore Police spokesperson did not respond to questions about compensation for retired employees. Morse said she was not paid.

State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Zy Richardson said prosecutors do not pay retired police employees for their time testifying, but that the office regularly assists witnesses with transportation.

Because of Morse’s resistance to testifying, Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Pillion said in court that he ordered police to conduct 24-hour surveillance of her house in the Glenham-Belhar neighborhood in the days leading up to the trial and supplied officers with a warrant for her arrest. He described Morse’s behavior as “recalcitrant.”

Morse stayed inside for several days ahead of the trial to avoid police. She sneaked out for an errand Aug. 7, the eve of the trial.

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Police pulled her over on Park Heights Avenue and arrested her. They took her to the homicide unit to sign a subpoena, which she declined to do, and then to Central Booking. Morse said jail staff were confused about how to book her because she wasn’t charged with a crime. She was held on a $5,000 bond.

“It’s maddening,” Morse said. “I’m in jail, the same place I went every day to take pictures of inmates.”

***

Sixteen years of collecting evidence on the streets of Baltimore wore on Morse’s body and mind.

She said she developed arthritis from hunching over to photograph and pick up everything from bullets and bloodied clothing to cellphones and suspected drugs. What was at first an exciting and fast-paced job soon became dreary. The rate of homicides and shootings went up, despite her and her colleagues’ seemingly relentless work. Every day, there were new scenes to process.

“I was sick and tired of all that crime in my head,” Morse said. “I couldn’t wait to let it go because that’s really depressing. That’s all you’re doing all day long: killings and stabbings and child abuse and burnings and robberies.”

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She retired April 1, 2020, taking with her just two relics from her career: her certificate of retirement and a card identifying her as a retired crime lab technician. Her salary was about $66,000 in her last fiscal year with the police department, according to a city payroll database.

“Once I retired, I let all of that go,” Morse said. “That’s pretty much what I told the lawyers and prosecutors — I don’t remember anything.”

Nancy Morse holds a card identifying her as a retired crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department.

Being a crime scene technician was just the last in a long line of jobs for Morse. The Baltimore native and Morgan State University graduate started out as a Navy aviation machinist in Tennessee. She went on to be a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service and worked in bookbinding, as a secretary and on an assembly line.

She started as a city crime lab technician at 45 after completing a two-year forensics program at Prince George’s County Community College. The hours were long and her shifts spanned night and day. When she had a day off or took vacation, she worried about getting a call summoning her to court immediately.

It became difficult for her to leave work behind when she came home to her elderly mother. She didn’t talk about work and just tried to relax. Her swimming pool was one of the few places she found peace. Concerns about burglaries and other crimes she investigated led her to install security cameras and alarms.

“I never wanted to bring my work home,” she said. “Home is my oasis.”

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All she wanted from her retirement was more time in her sanctuary — and to be left alone. She looked forward to swimming, working in her garden and taking her 91-year-old mother to activities with other seniors — something she didn’t have much time for while working.

Nancy Morse, a retired crime lab technician for the Baltimore Police Department, walks in the backyard of the Northeast Baltimore home she calls her “oasis.”

After she retired, she received summonses for several other cases, but never complied.

That didn’t work this time. Her peace was interrupted by a procession of officers who knocked on her door between July 26 and Aug. 5. On July 29, when her front gate opened, triggering an alarm around 9:30 p.m., she thought it was another cop.

A man wearing a Baltimore Police homicide T-shirt came to the front porch. It was Pillion, the prosecutor, who rang the doorbell camera. He stood there several minutes.

“Hi, ma’am, I don’t know if you can hear me ... I would really appreciate if you could call me back,” Pillion said into the camera. “We’ve met before. We’ve had cases before. I really, really, really would appreciate your help. I know you’re retired, but I would really appreciate it.”

He left a note and walked away.

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A screenshot of video from Nancy Morse's doorbell camera shows Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Pillion at her Northeast Baltimore home.

***

“You recovered and submitted a set of shell casings that are absolutely critical to proving the case and giving justice to two families,” read Pillion’s note, referring to the relatives of 22-year-old Ayranna James and 21-year-old Courtney Richardson, who were killed almost three years ago.

Soon, he’d apply for what’s known as a “material witness warrant” for a “body attachment” to have Morse jailed to ensure she showed up in court.

“It’s an extremely rare practice to use body attachments to require former law enforcement professionals to testify in court,” Zy Richardson of the state’s attorney’s office said. “Very few of our prosecutors have experienced a similar scenario.”

In almost 34 years as a prosecutor in Annapolis and Baltimore, Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said she never had a professional witness arrested.

“I’ve had to do it occasionally for a civilian witness, usually for more serious crimes like murder and sexual assaults,” Leitess said.

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It’s not uncommon, Leitess said, for prosecutors to make special arrangements for professional witnesses who have gone on to other jobs or moved out of state. She said they’re entitled to reimbursement for travel, lodging and food when they return to testify. Sometimes a new employer in the private sector may even demand a fee for their time, and prosecutors’ offices have to negotiate for their appearance.

Richardson said prosecutors in Baltimore “do authorize payments for expert witnesses such as former assistant medical examiners.”

For someone who was in Morse’s role, there’s an added difficulty. Prosecutors may be able to find a workaround for the testimony of an officer or technician who bagged an article of clothing. But the law is stricter about the chain of custody for evidence that could’ve been altered as it was processed. That means information about biological, firearm and drug evidence is usually specific to the person who recovered it, Leitess said.

“When the integrity of the item is in question and the subsequent testing and examination of the item is integral to the case, that’s when it’s important to have that particular witness,” Leitess said. “Is it always fatal to a case? No. Is it dangerous to try it without it? Absolutely.”

***

Morse was brought into court in pink jail scrubs for a mid-trial hearing to determine whether she would continue to be held in jail for the forthcoming murder trials of two co-defendants, Malik Brooks and Devon Bynum, which were scheduled through Aug. 22.

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Deborah Katz Levi, the director of special litigation in the Baltimore Office of the Public Defender, represented Morse for the unusual legal proceeding. She criticized prosecutors and police for neglecting to make arrangements to care for Morse’s 91-year-old mother, for who Morse is the sole caregiver.

Pillion questioned why Morse couldn’t drive the approximately 15 minutes from her house to court for her brief role in the trial.

“I’m at a loss for words for why we’re here,” Pillion said.

Morse declined an opportunity to address the judge.

“This is an uncomfortable position from one civil servant to another,” Circuit Judge Videtta Brown told Morse, ordering she be released after testifying. “I don’t want you back in this situation, but ultimately it’s your choice.”

On the witness stand, Morse denied any recollection of the case.

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Pillion had her read aloud segments of a report she had written during the investigation. In that way, Morse testified that she recovered eight cartridge casings and one bullet fragment. She told the jury about the shattered glass in front of a tattoo parlor, the woman lying on her back on the sidewalk, and the gold teeth and phone charger an employee from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner removed from one of the victims’ pockets.

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She explained how she documented crime scenes, from drawing a rough sketch on-site and a more detailed one on a computer at the lab. She said she liked the overnight shift and preferred working alone. Morse said officers and detectives recognized her by the large spotlight she carried to find evidence they might have missed.

As she answered questions from the attorneys, Morse seemed to settle in. She sounded like a public servant who was proud of her career.

Several witnesses testified after Morse before the jury convicted Walker of two counts of second-degree murder.

Before Morse left court, Brown made sure Morse signed paperwork regarding the upcoming trials.

“I’m just hoping you abide by the subpoenas,” the judge said.

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Morse walked out with correctional officers by her side. She said she was released from Central Booking around 2:30 a.m. the next day.

She showed up to court Tuesday for her testimony in the next trial.


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