The distant video showed three people walk into a courtyard in East Baltimore’s Douglass Homes community — but for the shades of their clothes, they were indistinguishable. Only two people left the block, running. They were pictured on the surveillance footage one second and gone the next.
Baltimore Safe Streets leader Dante Barksdale was gunned down in the moments between those video clips that morning last January, shot to death with nine rounds fired from an untraceable “ghost gun.” Anne Arundel County police officers recovered that handgun during a traffic stop, about two weeks after Barksdale died, underneath the seat of Garrick Powell but in an SUV with three other occupants.
With historical cell data, the FBI placed Powell’s phone in the area of the shooting about an hour beforehand. But the special agent who mapped out the digital trail left as Powell’s phone pinged off cell towers on the date of the fatal shooting, Jan. 17, 2021, couldn’t say during his testimony whether the phone was in the public housing community or on the nearby Orleans Street thoroughfare.
A Baltimore jury on Thursday found Powell not guilty of murder and related gun charges after about two hours of deliberation following a two-day trial in the city’s Circuit Court.
“Not enough evidence,” juror Larry Holmes said after the verdict. “You couldn’t place the gun. You couldn’t tell who was in the video. ... You couldn’t prove he was the one who pulled the trigger.”
The state’s case against Powell relied exclusively on circumstantial evidence. There was the grainy video, but no testimony to identify Powell as being pictured in it. There was his cellphone location history, albeit with its deficiencies. And there was Powell’s arrest with the murder weapon, which was swabbed for DNA repeatedly but never compared to samples of the defendant’s DNA.
No civilian witnesses testified at Powell’s trial, just police officers and detectives, a paramedic, the FBI agent and a pair of firearm examiners.
The trial revealed no motive for the homicide, which stunned Baltimore because of Barksdale’s profile. As the nephew of Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, whose crimes inspired the HBO series “The Wire,” and having served time behind bars himself, Dante Barksdale had “street cred.” He used that credibility to convince young men in Baltimore to put down their guns, becoming the face of the city’s violence prevention program, Safe Streets.
Several of Barksdale’s family members and former colleagues filled courtroom benches for the trial. As the jury foreperson read the verdict Thursday morning, Barksdale’s relatives rushed out of the courtroom.
When the judge told Powell he was to be released, he embraced his attorney, John Cox. His family and friends attended the trial, too, and when he was cleared, his mother breathed a sigh of relief — it was the second time her son had been acquitted of murder in the city.
“It was an incomplete investigation and an incomplete prosecution,” Cox said after court. “The prosecutor did what he did with the evidence that he had, but, unfortunately, he didn’t have anything more.”
In his closing argument Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Jeffrey Maylor said the pieces of evidence presented were enough for the jury to find Powell guilty of murder.
Although the video didn’t capture the shooting, he said, it was obvious that the second person pictured leaving the courtyard was the shooter — he needed the time to shoot Barksdale nine times in his body and head.
A chaotic scene captured on an officer’s body-worn camera showed residents flood the courtyard, many admonishing police for not doing more to prevent such violence. Although Barksdale almost certainly died instantaneously, he was pronounced dead at the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital because a paramedic couldn’t treat him with all of the commotion.
The most compelling evidence in the case, an alternate juror said Wednesday, was the Polymer80 9mm handgun with an extended magazine loaded with 30 rounds recovered after a traffic stop Feb. 3, 2021, in Anne Arundel County near the city limits. The policemen testified they suspected drug activity and pulled the car over for speeding. Inside, they found two guns and bags of drugs. All four occupants were arrested.
The county gun and drug charges were dismissed, but the best clue in Barksdale’s murder came from that traffic stop.
An Anne Arundel firearms examiner ran test-fired bullets from the gun found under Powell’s seat through a law enforcement database that compares ballistics evidence recovered during other crimes. The unique markings left by the handgun produced a potential lead in Baltimore City. He reported his finding in February.
Baltimore detectives reached out in May. They sent their own firearms examiner, Jennifer Ingbretson, to conduct ballistics tests. She testified that the striations on the shell casings and bullet fragments left in the Douglass Homes courtyard were fired by the same gun found under Powell’s seat in the Mercedes.
“[Ingbretson] connected it. I’m like, ‘Well, it’s his gun,” alternate juror Jasmin Campbell said.
She was pretty convinced that Powell was guilty until Cox’s closing argument, Campbell told The Sun after being dismissed before deliberations Wednesday.
His analysis “kind of generated those questions again,” she said. “And it made me think, ‘Maybe they should’ve gone back and looked at the evidence.’”
Campbell wondered why the state didn’t present any evidence of a connection between Powell and Barksdale. What about the third man prosecutors said was on the video with Powell and Barksdale, and why didn’t he testify? she said she thought. Where were those clothes that prosecutors said distinguished Powell on video?
In his closing remarks, Cox pointed out everything investigators neglected: Detectives didn’t analyze the 13 swabs of DNA taken from the murder weapon, didn’t send a hand-rolled cigar found by Barksdale’s body to be tested for his client’s DNA, didn’t look at the phone records of the three other people arrested in the car with the murder.
Baltimore police did not send Powell’s phone for analysis until sometime in April; it’s still being processed for evidence.
“There wasn’t a single witness throughout the whole trial that identified who the shooter was,” said Cox, referring to the lack of an eyewitness or police officer identifying Powell on the surveillance footage. “We’ve been through an entire trial where nobody has said anything my client did on the day in question.”
Instead, Maylor relied on the cellphone records.
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The maps put together by FBI Special Agent Michael Fowler showed Powell’s phone ping off a tower near Pimlico Race Course twice, about three hours before the shooting. Fowler estimated the phone was in an area approximately 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.
The phone went off the network for about an hour, Fowler testified, meaning it could have been turned off, placed on airplane mode or the battery died.
“Mr. Powell knows it can be tracked,” Maylor said in closing arguments to the jury, adding that Powell never disputed that it was his cellphone. “There is enough evidence to show Garrick Powell killed Dante Barksdale.”
Baltimore homicide Detective Joseph Brown Jr., the lead investigator, testified briefly. He acknowledged that it was common throughout his more than a decade investigating fatal and nonfatal shootings in the city for guns to change hands frequently. Brown looked through his case binder but could not find any documentation that he sent the “blunt” near Barksdale’s body for DNA testing.
Cox asked Brown if he checked under the passenger seat of a friend’s car before he got in. Brown said he did not.
During closing, Cox walked over to the witness stand. He reached under the chair and peeled off a photo of a gun he’d taped beneath it for the detective’s testimony. His point was that the gun in the car found underneath Powell’s seat could have belonged to one of the other occupants, and he said police didn’t test the DNA to find out for sure. He compared the case to a television show.
“This case is the start of a half-decent investigation, and then you get to a commercial break,” Cox told the jury. “When you come back from commercial, you expect the second half. Instead, you got the credits.”