All the pieces of circumstantial evidence against the man accused of killing Baltimore Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale — his arrest weeks later with the handgun used in the fatal shooting, the cell phone data placing him near the crime scene, a video that allegedly shows him — are enough for a jury to find him guilty of murder, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
But there were three other people arrested along with Garrick Powell after a traffic stop yielded the handgun used to shoot Barksdale dead, Powell’s lawyer rebutted in his opening statement. Moreover, the defense attorney said, the cell phone location data cut out an hour before the shooting, and the video police used to identify Powell was grainy at best.
Those shortcomings in the evidence amount to reasonable doubts that should preclude a jury from finding Powell guilty, his attorney said.
So began the trial for Powell, 29, who is charged with first-degree murder and firearms offenses stemming from Barksdale’s shooting death on Jan, 17, 2021, in the city’s Douglass Homes public housing. It was a homicide that shocked Baltimore because Barksdale was known as a leading peacekeeper for the violence-prevention group, a man who spent the last decade of his life trying to convince the city’s young men to put their guns down.
Several of Barksdale’s friends, family members and former colleagues occupied benches in one of the larger courtrooms in Baltimore City Circuit Court as Judge Jennifer Schiffer swore in a jury, selected Monday, and allowed attorneys to preview their interpretations of the evidence that will be presented over the next days.
By Tuesday afternoon, a Baltimore police officer, two city crime scene technicians and a paramedic had taken the witness stand to tell the jury about what they saw on a bitterly cold January morning in the heart of Douglas Homes. A chaotic scene of onlookers swearing at police — “Get out of your [expletive] cars,” a bystander yelled — around Barksdale’s dead body played out on footage captured by the officer’s body-worn camera.
Two Anne Arundel County police officers testified about the consequential traffic stop that produced a Polymer80 9mm, semi-automatic handgun loaded with one bullet in the chamber and 30 more in an extended magazine. That gun produced the nine shell casings and single projectile recovered by the pool of blood on the sidewalk where Barksdale’s body came to rest, police and prosecutors have said.
FBI Special Agent Michael Fowler, who specializes in historical analyzing cell phone records, told jurors about the digital trails mobile phones leave as they ping off nearby cell towers, and confessed to their shortcomings during pointed cross examination.
Meanwhile, Baltimore Detective Joseph Brown Jr., the lead homicide investigator in the case, began to testify Tuesday afternoon and is expected to retake the stand Wednesday morning.
Detective Shane Frasier and Sgt. Brendan McGrath, of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said they were doing surveillance Feb. 3, 2021, outside of a convenience store and liquor shop in the 700 block of Church Street in Anne Arundel’s portion of Brooklyn. They said they saw a silver Mercedes SUV parked in the strip mall and watched two people approach the passenger’s side. A woman made an exchange with a passenger before the SUV left.
The Anne Arundel officers began following and pulled the Mercedes over for speeding. Frasier said he saw people moving around inside the tinted car before it came to a stop. Eventually, they arrested everyone inside on gun and drug charges. They found one handgun in the armrest of the backseats and, after having the car towed to the station, the Polymer80 pistol wedged underneath the front passenger’s seat. That’s where Powell sat.
Jurors did not hear about the handgun found in the armrest because it is not relevant to Powell’s murder case. All of the charges in Anne Arundel County stemming from traffic stop were dismissed.
“The only way you’d be able to access where this firearm was, was if you were in the front seat,” Frasier said of the handgun found under the seat where Powell sat.
Defense attorney John Cox challenged the police officers about that statement.
He highlighted that Frasier didn’t even know how many people were in the car until approaching it and got both officers to agree objects in the car could’ve shifted while it was towed from the scene to the Northern District Station in Brooklyn Park. During Cox’s questions, McGrath conceded someone could’ve jammed a foot under the seat, through wires and an air conditioning box.
The Anne Arundel officers testified the woman who exchanged something with the Mercedes passenger outside the liquor store was found to have a note with a phone number. Frasier said they got a warrant for the two phones confiscated from Powell during the traffic-stop arrest. One of the phones rang when they called the number from the note.
Powell was released on the gun and drug charges in Anne Arundel pending trial. By the time of his arrest for murder in Baltimore in May, he was wanted for absconding home monitoring.
The FBI’s Fowler mapped out Powell’s cell phone location history around the time of the shooting.
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Powell’s phone was recorded in the radius of a tower near Pimlico Race Course, twice, about three hours before the shooting. Fowler estimated the phone was 750 meters away from the closest cell tower to the shooting scene, roughly an hour before the killing — the technology does not allow investigators to specify an exact location, and he testified that he couldn’t say for sure if Powell’s phone was on Douglas Court or traveling on Route 40, known as Orleans Street there.
The phone did not emit a signal for the next hour; it had either been turned off, switched to airplane mode or the battery died. The phone popped up in Northeast Baltimore about 40 minutes later.
In his opening statement, Assistant State’s Attorney Jeffrey Maylor said a video showed Barksdale at a liquor store near the 200 block of Douglas Court, where he was killed, minutes before the shooting
“When [Barksdale] entered those courts, he was gunned down at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning,” Maylor told the jury, adding that video, which did not capture the shooting, also showed another man. “The individual walking around in a white jacket — you’ll see his gait, you’ll see his frame, and I will argue to you that’s Mr. Powell.”
Cox focused on what investigators didn’t do: While they swabbed the gun for DNA, they “didn’t do a damn thing with it,” he said. “If the DNA didn’t come back for my client, then they have no case. So why do anything to it?”
He told the jury not to give too much weight to the gun found underneath the seat of his client in the Mercedes, two weeks after the homicide.
“Guns transfer hands in Baltimore City like a hot potato,” Cox said.