Some 15 minutes after the teenager Mustafa Carter was robbed and killed in the streets of West Baltimore, police had their suspect.
A witness to the crime spotted David Morris a few blocks away. He wore a black coat like the killer. On the weight of the witness’ words and little else, a Baltimore jury convicted Morris of felony murder and a judge sentenced him to 50 years behind bars.
Nearly 17 years later, Morris’ long fight to clear his name ended.
In a brief court hearing Wednesday, prosecutors said a review of the old evidence led them to conclude Morris, 36, is innocent. Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles Peters granted their request to throw out the old conviction. Then, prosecutors dropped the charges.
“Mr. Morris, I do wish you well,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit.
Morris participated in the hearing by a video conference from prison. The judge ordered him to be released immediately. Morris did not address the court.
His was just the latest old murder conviction overturned by the work of the Conviction Integrity Unit and nonprofit organizations seeking to free those wrongly convicted. Lawyers with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project in Washington and the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore have worked to uncover decades-old wrongful convictions and present them to the office of Baltimore state’s attorney for review.
Together, the attorneys have exonerated more than 10 men in recent years, some for high-profile murders, who together served nearly 300 years in prison for crimes that prosecutors now believe they did not commit. As with Morris, many of these cases hinged on an identification made by a witness who later recanted or was discredited. Other men have been set free after DNA tests of old crime scene evidence.
The effort has become a key initiative of State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s administration.
Morris tried to appeal his conviction at least five times before the Innocence Project lawyers took up his case last year.
He was arrested minutes after the killing while outside a home in the 1900 block of W. Saratoga St. The witness told police that particular home was his grandmother’s house. “So he knew Morris did not live there and was not supposed to be there,” according to court records.
On Wednesday, prosecutors revealed that Morris in fact had a reason to be there. His girlfriend lived there.
Further, the house was a three- to four-minute walk from the crime scene. Morris, however, was spotted at the home 15 minutes after the killing.
“For about 11 minutes, having just committed a murder, Morris — without any proceeds from a robbery — would have remained standing outside,” prosecutors wrote in a filing before the judge.
Detectives bagged Morris’ hands and tested them for gunshot residue, but the tests came back negative. Morris insisted he was innocent. Still, he was prosecuted without any incriminating forensic evidence or a motive for killing Carter.
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The prosecution’s theory was that Morris and a second person robbed and killed Carter. Morris allegedly served as the lookout. He was charged under Maryland’s felony murder rule, which holds responsible for murder anyone who participates in a felony crime resulting in death.
During a two-day trial in 2005, the jury never heard exculpatory evidence that police had identified another suspect, that DNA tests revealed that one of the people to rummage through Carter’s pockets was likely a woman, or that the sole identifying witness contradicted himself in statements to police.
In fact, Lipscomb told the judge, when the witness left the courtroom, he told two people in the hall that he no longer believed Morris to be the killer.
The jury deliberated one day before finding him guilty.
“Had the jury had the benefit of the new evidence,” Lipscomb told the judge, “the outcome almost certainly would have been different.”
Mosby announced the exoneration in a news release after the hearing.
“This case exemplifies the deeply damaging nature of the historical failures of the criminal justice system and our duty as prosecutors to address the wrongs of the past,” she wrote. “Let me extend my sincerest apologies to Mr. Morris and his family for the unspeakable trauma inflicted upon him as a result of this wrongful conviction.”