Tony DeWitt always said he was innocent.
He said so when Baltimore Police charged him with gunning down a 16-year-old girl one summer night in 2002. He said so when a jury convicted him even after an eyewitness recanted. He said so through 11 years of appeals.
A court finally listened in 2015, only after he produced a police memo showing a witness identified someone else as the shooter and told detectives at the time. DeWitt’s conviction was thrown out, city prosecutors dropped his case, and he walked free after 13 years behind bars.
In new court records, however, city attorneys say DeWitt pulled off an elaborate con to trick prosecutors and judges. In these documents, they say his alleged hoax featured $10,000 bribes for fabricated testimony — “I can lace your pocket,” he allegedly said — and a prison-cell forgery to manufacture the evidence DeWitt’s using now to sue the city for damages.
“Plaintiff engaged in blatant and shocking witness tampering and outright fabrication of critical evidence,” they wrote a federal judge last week.
DeWitt learned of the city’s allegations against him from a reporter. “I don’t have anything to say,” he replied.
His civil attorney, Robert Joyce, said he was assessing the claims.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, meanwhile, said prosecutors “operated with the belief that the document was valid” and the process of turning over documents has changed since DeWitt’s trial. They say they are “assessing and reviewing” the matter. It’s unclear whether DeWitt could be recharged.
The case brings a startling allegation amid the efforts by city prosecutors and nonprofit exoneration groups to right the wrongs of Baltimore’s flawed murder convictions from decades ago. In the past five years alone, at least a dozen men imprisoned for murder have had their cases overturned and been set free. They served 17, 25, even 36 years behind bars.
Photos have appeared on news sites around the country of their tearful reunions with family members. State lawmakers paid some of the men nearly $79,000 for each year mistakenly spent behind bars. They have won multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the city for their wrongful convictions.
Meanwhile, city attorneys have been quietly fighting back, arguing in DeWitt’s case and one other that the prisoners allegedly cheated to attain freedom. The other man settled his lawsuit in April after being confronted with the accusation.
Behind City Hall’s fight is a boutique law firm from Chicago that built a reputation for defending cities in high-stakes police lawsuits.
Former Baltimore Solicitor Andre Davis said he couldn’t remember whether the Chicago attorneys, Shneur Nathan and Avi Kamionski, pitched themselves or were recommended by one of his staffers, but he set out to review their work. City Hall routinely contracts private firms in Baltimore to handle police lawsuits in state court. But these wrongful convictions required specialty defense work, usually in federal court and requiring months — years even — of hard-fought litigation with millions of taxpayer dollars on the line.
“Chicago had a whole host of wrongful conviction cases in the last 10 to 20 years; they [Nathan and Kamionski] were hired by the City of Chicago,” Davis said. “When we looked at their record, their performance, and when we evaluated the recommendations we got from lawyers in Chicago, we decided to enter into an agreement with them so they could focus pretty much exclusively on wrongful conviction cases.”
Both men had worked for the law firm of Andrew Hale and Associates, which raked in $20.5 million over a decade — the most of any private firm in Chicago — while defending that city in police misconduct lawsuits, according to a 2012 report by the People’s Law Office of Chicago.
“Their law firm was ideologically committed to the Fraternal Order of Police’s position that there’s no such thing as a wrongful conviction,” said G. Flint Taylor, founding partner of the People’s Law Office, an office that represents people in civil rights, police violence, government misconduct and death penalty cases.
A federal judge in Chicago once admonished Hale and Kamionski and granted a new trial in a lawsuit brought by an elderly man wrongfully convicted of rape and murder. Taylor was one of the man’s attorneys; Hale and Kamionski defended Chicago. They settled for $950,000.
“There must be a bright line between aggressive advocacy and ‘win at all costs’ unethical conduct. This bright line has been crossed by defense counsels’ repeated ill-advised actions in this case,” the judge wrote.
Nathan did not try that case.
Last year, he and Kamionski opened an office in a high rise in downtown Baltimore. They are defending the city of Baltimore in at least four wrongful-conviction lawsuits pending in federal court. Davis said the amount the firm is paid is proprietary and not subject to open records laws.
Among their cases was a wrongful-conviction lawsuit filed by Garreth Parks, who spent more than 16 years in prison for murder before he presented a new police report that set him free. He had discovered, buried in his case file, notes from Baltimore Police Officer Joseph Mueller indicating another man had confessed to the murder. This “Mueller report,” as the attorneys coined it, had never come up during trial.
Where does the proof come from? And that’s the question that the Parks case and now this second case is really posing for the people of Baltimore City. Things are not always what they seem.”— Former Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis
With the new evidence in hand, prosecutors agreed to throw out Parks’ conviction in March 2015 and he walked free. He sued the city in October 2018 and asked for a jury trial.
Nathan and Kamionski entered into the case and within a year they wrote the judge to say they made a startling discovery.
“The so-called ‘Mueller Report’ is a fraud,” Nathan wrote. “In fact, the so-called ‘Mueller Report’ was fabricated by recreating Officer Mueller’s signature from another, known document contained within Plaintiff’s criminal case file.”
Two forensic examines concluded the document a fraud, he wrote the judge. During a hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Nathan said Parks cooked up the key document from amid a stack of papers in his jail cell.
“So he says, ‘I didn’t notice it for some time ... until, oh, I notice, a-ha, I have a document that shows — that ticks every box in my writ of petition for innocence that I need to file,” Nathan told the judge, according to a transcript.
The judge ordered both sides to prepare to argue the matter. Instead, they settled and Parks dropped his case, accepting $125,000 from the city.
“If one mistake was made – and someone was released early after serving a decade behind bars – that does not in any way diminish the horrors experienced by the legions of wrongfully convicted.”— Attorney C. Justin Brown
Nathan and Kamionski declined to comment. C. Justin Brown, one of Parks’ attorneys, said they “strongly oppose” the accusation that Parks fabricated the evidence.
“The settlement in this case was based on several complicated and personal factors,” Brown wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “We and the City negotiated in good faith and resolved the litigation. Out of respect for my client, I cannot go into the details.”
Still, he said, the city’s lawyers’ allegations should not undermine the uphill battle of the innocence movement to fight wrongful convictions.
“If one mistake was made — and someone was released early after serving a decade behind bars — that does not in any way diminish the horrors experienced by the legions of wrongfully convicted,” Brown said. “Our system is not flawed because people are being erroneously let out of prison; it is flawed because people are being erroneously convicted.”
Davis, the former solicitor, said he’s pleased with the work of Nathan & Kamionski. He said the taxpayer costs would have exceeded $125,000 to litigate Parks’ case to victory.
“Why would someone who spent years and years and years in prison for a crime they did not commit and who claims to have clear and unmistakable evidence of wrongdoing by Baltimore City Police, why would that person settle the case for only $125,000?” Davis said.
“People sometimes need to step behind the allegations in the case and ask themselves: ‘What is the proof? Where does the proof come from?' And that’s the question that the Parks case and now this second case is really posing ... things are not always what they seem.”
DeWitt always maintained he had nothing to do with the July 5, 2002, shooting that killed 16-year-old Sherene Moore and wounded an 18-year-old man. He pointed the finger at another man, who was also killed the same night. At his trial, two witnesses recanted their identification of DeWitt, with one saying the detectives coerced him.
A jury convicted DeWitt in 2003, and he was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
His exoneration hinged on a police document that he said he received from a public information act request in 2011. The document showed homicide Detective Mark Veney had interviewed a man named Tyrell Curtis who was at the crime scene and identified someone else as the gunman.
Its authenticity went unchallenged by Assistant State’s Attorney Cynthia Banks, who said she had turned everything in her possession over to DeWitt’s defense.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn decided that the document could have changed the outcome of DeWitt’s murder trial and vacated his conviction in late 2015.
“The information came from the prosecutor’s file. One could deduce that if the information was in the prosecutor’s file it was there when trial counsel reviewed the prosecutor’s file in 2003,” Phinn ruled. “Thus, trial counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and, there is a reasonable probability that, if counsel had performed adequately, the result of Petitioner’s trial would have been different.”
Banks is now chief of the felony unit for the Baltimore State’s Attorney Office, which said in a statement that its procedures for turning over documents have been upgraded in the years since DeWitt’s trial. “There is now an itemized electronic discovery process — distinct from 2003 — so any questions about whether a document existed or was given to the defense would be easily resolved,” said spokeswoman Zy Richardson.
DeWitt sued in November 2018, and the city attorneys hired forensic examiners who determined the document he obtained through his records request was a fake, according to their report filed in court.
The form used to document the interview, which is no longer in use, has a unique serial number. The attorneys retrieved from police and from prosecutors the original form with that serial number, showing the back side of the original document was blank, according to the city’s filing. DeWitt filled it in with his own account, the filing alleges.
DeWitt’s copy contains typos — Veney purportedly misspelled “homicide” as “homocide” — and the detective’s signature is not even close to a match, the attorneys argued: Instead, it’s written the way another detective had written Veney’s name on a different document, according to the city’s filing. The forensic document examiners also determined a supervisor’s signature was forged, they wrote in their report.
What’s more, they listened to his recorded phone calls from jail and found conversations in which DeWitt could be heard arranging to bribe the surviving shooting victim, Maurice Booker, and Booker’s brother, according to the city’s filing. In another call, they say, he discussed bribing the purported witness, Tyrell Curtis, and coaching him for his testimony, the filing alleges. They used a pseudonym for Curtis but occasionally slipped up, the attorneys say.
“I already, I prepped him, I prepped him. But I’m gonna, I’m gonna do it again, you know what I mean when it get closer, you feel me?” a woman talking with DeWitt said on one recorded call, according to the city’s filing. She said she had been “keeping tight contact with Tyrell,” according to transcripts of the conversations included in the court filing.
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“Me and you and my lawyer, we gonna work something out as far as a contract where as though I give you and your brother ten stacks a piece because that’s when I can sue their ass for a lot of their bulls--- they did in my trial,” DeWitt was recorded saying to Maurice Booker, according to the transcript. “I can lace your pocket and your brother pocket for real.”
Veney was not one of the primary investigators in DeWitt’s case; the detectives were William Ritz and Gregory McGillivary, who have faced several lawsuits related to their investigative work and were key to the Adnan Syed case, which has received intense worldwide scrutiny from the hit podcast “Serial.”
Veney’s work, however, has been questioned in the long-running case against Keith Davis Jr., who was shot by police in 2015 and later charged with murdering Pimlico Race Course employee Kevin Jones.
DeWitt’s civil attorney said the presence of Veney’s name on the document in question is cause for him to investigate.
“The fact that Detective Veney was involved in it, we’re looking deeper into this,” Joyce said.
In the city’s transcripts of the recorded jail calls, DeWitt appears confident about his plan. He had allegedly bribed the witnesses and forged the document. After more than a decade behind bars, one last obstacle stood between him and his freedom. DeWitt is quoted in another call as he neared that ruling.
“So I’m going in front of a Black, this a Black judge, this a new judge that’s down there now. She only been a judge down there for like three years … my lawyer, he was talking real good, like she real liberal and s--- … I been just hoping that everything pan out.”