Robert Harris was accused in 1996 of hiring a hit man to kill his fiancee at a Southwest Baltimore park in exchange for a life insurance payout.
Seven years later, Darnell Fields and Clayton Colkley were charged with killing a man in East Baltimore and shooting another man 10 times.
Though the defendants in both cases were twice convicted, judges have recently ordered third trials for each, saying defense attorneys should have been allowed to raise questions about the credibility of the lead detective — Darryl Massey — who has faced unrelated misconduct allegations of overtime theft with the Baltimore Police Department.
A judge ordered a new trial for Harris earlier this month. Colkley's third trial is scheduled to begin Friday. Fields, who was originally sentenced to life plus 50 years, pleaded guilty in July to a reduced sentence.
Massey, who retired from the Police Department in 2010 after a 30-year career, says the allegations of overtime theft against him were baseless, and have no bearing on his murder investigations.
"All of those cases were outstanding investigations, and we convicted the people responsible for those murders," Massey told The Baltimore Sun."So [the defendants] have nothing but time to come up with anything they can think and try to make it stick to the wall."
Michael Davey, an attorney who works with the police union, said there are "close to 4,000 complaints against officers every year, and some are sustained and some are not sustained." He says defendants shouldn't be able to use them to distract a jury.
But defense attorneys say the allegations against Massey were wrongly pushed aside and raise questions about his honesty and credibility that should be put in front of a jury. Joshua Insley, who represented Colkley's co-defendant, said the case set a precedent improving defense attorneys' access to police internal affairs files.
"They've used [Massey's] lack of credibility as the standard for determining whether all other police aren't credible," Insley said.
The 1996 killing of Harris' fiancee, Teresa McLeod, and the wounding of Harris appeared to be a racially charged crime: a white couple ambushed by a black robber in a public park. But police quickly learned of Harris' alleged role in orchestrating the shooting.
Russell Brill of Arbutus admitted to police that he had been contracted as a hit man and testified against Harris. He directed police to a package buried in a cemetery next to Violetville Park, where the shooting occurred. It contained the murder weapon, bloodstained jeans, a plaid jacket and gloves and a face mask.
Brill said he tried to abort the plan at the last minute, and Harris wrestled the gun away from him and shot McLeod five or six times. Harris turned the gun on Brill, but Brill wrested it back and shot Harris in the leg.
A witness, Donnell Bartee, was incarcerated awaiting trial for an unrelated murderat the Baltimore City Detention Center and testified that Brill told him he was "locked up for something that he didn't do." Bartee said Harris later approached him in the jail and offered him money to say that Brill had confessed to the crime and exonerated Harris.
Harris denied any involvement in McLeod's murder. He said he had arranged to sell a gun to Brill to keep it away from McLeod's 9-year-old son. He said Brill set him up for a robbery, and shot McLeod because she fought back.
Brill pleaded guilty in 1997 to first-degree murder and using a handgun in a crime of violence in McLeod's killing. He received a sentence of 50 years in prison.
Harris' first conviction was overturned after appellate judges ruled the prosecution wrongly withheld the fact that Bartee — charged with murder and on probation for another attempted murder — had been given a plea deal that called for him to serve just 12 years in prison.
By the time Harris' case went to a second trial in 2012, Massey's overtime theft allegations had emerged, and defense attorneys wanted to raise them in court.
Internal affairs had watched Massey in 2006, and found him at home or running errands during periods that he was earning overtime because he was listed as being on "stand-by" to testify in court. Records obtained by the defense attorneys show Massey earned tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay, and his unit earned far more than any other in the city.
Investigators wanted him charged with felony theft, but the state's attorney's office declined to file criminal charges.
Massey said the concept of being on "stand-by" is widespread and approved by prosecutors. His administrative case was dismissed in 2009 along with other internal affairs cases amid questions about their integrity.
Police misconduct cases in Maryland are confidential by law in Maryland, and attorneys must demonstrate a "reasonable need" to inspect internal affairs records of officers. A judge then decides whether those records can be used in the cross-examination of an officer.
A judge, unidentified in court records, determined during Harris' second trial that there were no grounds to allow the allegations against Massey into his trial.
"The time sheet issue, the overtime falsification, is not conceptually or probatively connected to Detective Massey's … testimony about the now ancient events of 16 years ago in 1996," the judge said, according to a transcript included in the appellate ruling.
But Harris' appeal gained steam following the ruling in the Fields and Colkley case. The men were charged in a "revenge-type" shooting spree in which James "Buck" Bowens was killed and William Courts was wounded. They were convicted in 2005, and again in 2010.
In reversing the second convictions of Fields and Colkley, the court found that the accounts of two witnesses "were likely more compelling to the jury than the testimony of the detectives." But the court said there was "no doubt" that "such conduct would be probative of the detectives' 'character for untruthfulness.'"
Fields pleaded guilty in July to a reduced sentence of 55 years with all but 20 years suspended. Colkley continues to fight the charges, and his attorneys believe they can impeach the officers' credibility by bringing the past internal misconduct allegations to light.
The Court of Special Appeals looked to that ruling in its decision in Harris' case.
"As in Fields, this error was not harmless," the judges wrote.
The attorney general's office could appeal the Harris decision to the state's highest court. A spokesman for that office said no decision had been made.
Harris' attorneys and relatives of McLeod could not be reached for comment.