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Police charge man in Dec. 30 killing of Pettiford

Jerome Willis Jr. is accused of fatally shooting Antoine Pettiford on Dec. 30.
Jerome Willis Jr. is accused of fatally shooting Antoine Pettiford on Dec. 30.

Baltimore police have made an arrest in the killing of Antoine Pettiford, whose dismissed murder conviction in the 1990s became a symbol for a broken justice system in the city.

Detectives say Jerome Willis Jr., 30, shot Pettiford, 43, to death Dec. 30 after an argument inside Melba's nightclub in the 3100 block of Greenmount Ave. in North Baltimore.

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Willis faces first-degree murder and weapons charges and remains in a Baltimore jail without bail. No attorney was listed in online court records.

In 1995, Pettiford was convicted of murdering a 22-year-old man in East Baltimore. After the conviction, a witness recanted and a federal investigation found a drug trafficker who admitted to arranging the murder in which Pettiford had been convicted. The trafficker told authorities that Pettiford played no role in the slaying and that he didn't even know him.

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Despite the confession, Pettiford remained incarcerated until a lawyer took up his case and found — within the Police Department's homicide case file — evidence that linked the murder to two other people. The names of those people had not been disclosed to Pettiford or his attorney as the law requires.

In 1998, the prosecutor on Pettiford's case acknowledged that evidence wasn't disclosed and that his conviction should be thrown out and Pettiford retried. Rather than face another trial, Pettiford entered an Alford plea, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while pleading guilty to manslaughter. The plea deal allowed him to go free.

In 2000, prosecutors officially dismissed the manslaughter charge. Judge Ellen Heller said at the time that it would be a "miscarriage of justice" to allow the conviction to stand, and criticized city prosecutors and the detective who worked the case.

Pettiford was arrested on various charges in the years afterward, and he was able to get a second-degree-assault conviction vacated in one case. But he had spent much of the last decade in prison before his most recent release in February 2013.

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According to a statement of probable cause in Willis' arrest, Willis was identified as the suspect in Pettiford's killing through witness interviews and nightclub, ATM and CitiWatch surveillance camera footage. Police distributed a picture of Willis to news outlets and on social media. Willis was arrested Monday, but the police report does not indicate how officers tracked him down.

Twitter.com/justingeorge

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