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Case against husband, stepdaughter in Baltimore 'panhandler' killing built on circumstantial evidence, experts say

After wire-tapping Keith and Valeria Smith’s cellphones, peering into their Google search histories and using their location data to outline a cascade of apparent inconsistencies in their stories, Baltimore Police detectives cast aside the pair’s transfixing tale of a knife-wielding panhandler.

Instead, they turned to a growing pile of circumstantial evidence — a comment Keith allegedly made to his brother, an unexplained lapse of time in Druid Hill Park, Keith’s attempts to book a last-minute flight to Cuba as the investigation heated up — to determine the father and daughter were themselves responsible in the fatal stabbing of Keith’s wife, Jacquelyn, on Dec. 1 in East Baltimore.

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When police saw the pair were in Texas this week — their apparent flight south yet another circumstantial clue suggesting guilt — detectives sprang into action to prevent losing their suspects abroad.

“At the time of the writing of this warrant,” Det. Michael Moran wrote in a 15-page document seeking the pair’s arrest, “Keith Smith and Valeria Smith are 20 minutes from the Mexican border.”

In a case that had already caught the attention of the country for reasons since deemed to be a lie, here was what police now purported to be the real story. No longer was it a murder of a Good Samaritan stabbed by a panhandler as her witness husband looked on, police said, but a familial attack in which the witnesses were in on it.

According to legal experts, that shift, and the evidence as outlined in the charging documents, set up a potentially complex court case — or two, if the father and daughter are tried separately — in which prosecutors and defense attorneys spar not over the grim details of the deed, but circumstantial facts that are peripheral to it.

“It’s all coming together like a puzzle,” said Warren Brown, a local defense attorney with experience in such cases.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s office declined to comment on the open case. The Smiths do not have attorneys listed and could not be reached for comment — locked up as they are in Texas.

Brown and others warned that the charging documents may not contain all the facts in the case as known by the authorities. And they noted that more could and likely will be learned between now and the Smiths’ trials, if they ever go to trial. One of them could flip and testify against the other, for instance, or additional witnesses could come forward.

The documents were 15 pages long, filled with eyebrow-raising details but no smoking gun — no knife, no first-person witnesses. Some took that to indicate the case may indeed be circumstantial moving forward.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing for prosecutors, they said.

Gregg Bernstein, a former state’s attorney in Baltimore, declined to comment on the specifics of the Smith case, but noted that, “as a general matter, under the law, juries are instructed that circumstantial evidence is as probative as direct evidence. There's no difference under the law.”

And Joseph Murtha, a longtime defense lawyer who has defended clients in homicide cases, said the more circumstantial evidence there is, the more convincing the case becomes.

“When you look at these circumstantial cases in Maryland, usually the jurors come down on the side of common sense,” he said

Both Keith Smith and Valeria Smith, who claimed they were in the car when the killing occurred, gave inconsistent statements, police said. The scene where the panhandler allegedly stabbed Jacquelyn was not populated, and not a place panhandlers usually gather. Closed-circuit camera footage didn’t show their car where they said they had traveled that night. Signals from Keith Smith’s cellphone put them in Druid Hill Park for 15 minutes, without explanation. A necklace the panhandlers allegedly pulled from Jacquelyn Smith’s neck never showed up at local pawn shops. Keith Smith’s cell signal placed him near a bus stop where her purse was found.

At one point, Keith Smith’s brother, Vick, told police that his brother was having trouble in his marriage. After, during a wire-tapped conversation, the brother, who has not been charged with any crimes, said, ““I don’t want to talk because you know everything got ears now.”

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At another point, Keith Smith left an interview with police and immediately drove to Florida, asking his work to relocate him there. And after his brother warned him of being subpoenaed by a grand jury, police said, Keith Smith began looking for ways to leave the country.

“Keith asked a search engine if a passport was needed to go to Jamaica,” police wrote, “and if there was a way to cross into Mexico without going through the border.”

Murtha said that, even without a knife, and a solid explanation for how Jacquelyn Smith had been stabbed or by whom or in what exact location, all those smaller pieces of circumstantial evidence could come together in the minds of jurors in a convincing way.

“What you have is a conclusion that's based on a theory that isn't totally supported by physical evidence,” Murtha said after reviewing the charging documents in the case. “But jurors sometimes latch on to the common sense explanation.”

Ivan Bates, another prominent defense attorney who challenged Mosby in the last race for state’s attorney, said it is early in the case, and prosecutors and police could have more evidence they have not included in the charging documents. They could also flip either Keith Smith or Valeria Smith, or find a new witness, and any of those possibilities could redefine the case, he said.

“It’s still too soon to really have a total understanding,” he said.

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Still, if more doesn’t come, there would be gaps in the case that could be exploited by whichever defense attorneys take the case.

“The one thing that's missing in all of this: How'd they kill her and where?” Bates said. “They found her blood in the car, but he drove her to the hospital. They don't say anything about the knife.”

And, Bates said of Keith Smith’s interest in travel abroad: “Just because you want to buy a ticket to go someplace, yeah, it looks really, really bad, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you did the murder.”

Brown said circumstantial cases can often be strong, particularly when, as police allege in this case, authorities can prove the defendants weren’t being truthful.

“From what I've seen, not only is there circumstantial evidence seemingly implicating them, but a lot of it has to do with deceit and incredulity,” Brown said.

He pointed to a statement Keith Smith allegedly made to police to explain his time in Druid Hill Park: that he’d been lost, but embarrassed to admit it.

“Embarrassed to be lost? You’re embarrassed about being lost when we're talking about the murder of your wife?” Brown said. “That’s like being concerned about a hole in your sock when your foot is hanging off.”

David Jaros, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said the strength of circumstantial evidence as outlined in the charging documents in the case to date is its volume.

“With circumstantial evidence the sum is often stronger than the parts,” he said. But he added, “While we are starting to see the first outlines of what the case might be, a lot can happen between now and trial.”

Bernstein noted that in Maryland, perceived flight from a law enforcement investigation is an indicator of guilt. In fact, he said, in such cases where flight is alleged, there is an instruction the court will give to jurors to that effect.

The instruction says such flight is “not enough by itself to establish guilt, but it is a fact that may be considered by you as evidence of guilt,” Bernstein said.

Jurors are told that they should consider the factors that motivated the flight, and then decide whether that shows “a consciousness of guilt.”

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