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Crime

Baltimore prosecutors cite former detective’s ‘past misconduct’ in motion to vacate Adnan Syed’s murder conviction

In their argument that a judge should overturn Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, prosecutors highlighted “past misconduct” by a former Baltimore police detective involved in the investigation that led to Syed’s arrest in the killing of his ex-girlfriend in 1999.

The prosecutors did not allege that the former detective, William Ritz, did anything wrong in the investigation of Syed. But their motion to vacate Syed’s conviction, filed last week and approved by a judge on Monday, cites Ritz’s handling of a past case that resulted in the exoneration of a man years after his conviction and an $8 million settlement with the man’s family.

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The motion to vacate, which ultimately led the judge to release Syed on home detention, also cites questionable conduct by Ritz in another homicide case. In that case, according to a Court of Special Appeals ruling in 2005, Ritz didn’t inform a suspect of his Miranda rights in a timely fashion.

In another case, not mentioned in the recent motion, a federal jury awarded $15 million to a plaintiff, Sabein Burgess, for a wrongful conviction. Burgess was charged with murdering his girlfriend in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison, but was freed in 2015. Ritz was one of eight Baltimore Police officers named as defendants in the Burgess case.

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Ritz, who relocated to Florida after retiring from the force, did not respond to messages from The Baltimore Sun. A relative, reached by phone Tuesday, said he was unavailable.

A judge vacated Syed’s 2000 conviction on Monday after prosecutors raised the possibility of two alternative suspects in the killing of Woodlawn High School student Hae Min Lee — a case that was featured in the widely popular “Serial” podcast. In their motion to vacate, prosecutors argued that the suspects were known to authorities who investigated the homicide but not disclosed to Syed’s defense in violation of the law, preventing Syed from getting a fair trial.

The motion highlighted Ritz’s “past misconduct” in the case of Malcolm J. Bryant, who was convicted in 1999 of killing 16-year-old Toni Bullock. Bryant served 17 years before he was exonerated.

Ritz, the lead investigator in the case, had “failed to disclose exculpatory and impeachment evidence and fabricated evidence,” Baltimore Assistant State’s Attorney Becky J. Feldman wrote in the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

“The State does not make any claims at this time regarding the integrity of the police investigation,” wrote Feldman, referring to the Syed case. “However, in the interest of transparency, the State is obligated to note for the court and to the defense Detective Ritz’s misconduct in another case.”

Bryant’s sentence was vacated in 2016 after the Maryland Innocence Project sought a court-ordered DNA test of the victim’s nail clippings. The results revealed a partial DNA profile that did not match Bryant’s.

Bryant died in 2017, but his family sued the city and police department, and, in January, the city’s Board of Estimates approved an $8 million settlement for Bryant’s family. Ritz was named as a defendant in that case.

Ritz had a reputation with the department as “detail-oriented” and “methodical” and was once known to have a case clearance rate of 85%, despite the high caseload among Baltimore homicide detectives, according to colleagues quoted in a 2007 Baltimore Sun profile. It detailed his work in creating a golf tournament between police and prosecutors to raise money for the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.

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The motion to vacate Syed’s conviction also names Detective Greg MacGillivary as an investigator in the case, but it does not point to any prior cases alleging wrongdoing by him. MacGillivary did not respond to a message left at his Harford County home.

A Baltimore Police Department spokeswoman said the agency is reinvestigating Lee’s killing but declined to comment further or provide additional details about the renewed investigation.

In the Bryant case, Feldman wrote in the recent motion that Ritz failed to disclose evidence from a second eyewitness whose account contradicted another eyewitness and that investigators didn’t test “critical items of evidence” from the crime scene that might have had DNA samples.

Ritz used “direct or indirect suggestion to manipulate” a composite sketch of the suspect to look like Bryant, and the detective used “a suggestive photographic lineup” that included Bryant, according the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

In the other homicide case investigated by Ritz that prosecutors cited in the Syed motion, the Court of Special Appeals found the detective improperly used a “two-step interrogation technique” against Brian Cooper, who was charged with a 2002 fatal stabbing.

Police officers must advise detainees of their rights before an interrogation. An incriminating statement can be inadmissible if an officer questions a person before giving them a Miranda warning advising them of their rights.

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“Detective Ritz made a conscious decision to withhold Miranda warnings until appellant gave a statement implicating himself in the crime,” the 2005 court opinion said.

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The court ordered the murder conviction to be reversed and that Cooper receive a new trial.

Cooper was later convicted in 2006, and sentenced to life, according to online court records. Both Ritz and MacGillivary, among other officers, worked on that case, according to court records.

In the case not mentioned in the motion, Ritz was cited in a 2015 lawsuit filed by Burgess, who was charged with murdering his girlfriend, Michelle Dyson, in 1994 and sentenced to life plus 20 years in prison. He was freed after 19 years because another man confessed to the killing.

In 1998, a prisoner, Charles Dorsey, who was serving a 45-year sentence for attempted murder and armed robbery, wrote to Burgess’s mother saying he was behind the killing.

Ritz interviewed Dorsey about a year after he wrote the letter, “but did no additional follow-up because, according to their report, [the suspect’s] confession lacked details that the real killer would know,” according to Burgess’s lawsuit.

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Dorsey, who was a childhood acquaintance of Burgess, also sent letters to Burgess’s lawyer. He said he and a well-known hitman, according to police and prosecutors, fired the shots that killed Dyson during a home invasion and attempted robbery while Burgess was not home.

The hitman was dead when Dorsey wrote the letter. In the confession, Dorsey told Ritz the caliber of the weapon used in the killing, the number and location of gunshot wounds Dyson sustained, and that Dorsey had removed a safe with money and personal papers from a second-story bedroom, according to the the lawsuit brought by Burgess.


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