Shooting case shows pitfalls, troubles of prosecuting in Baltimore

The victim was escorted into the Baltimore courtroom by guards. The four-time convicted drug dealer, wearing a blue prison jumpsuit as well as wrist and ankle shackles, said he didn't see who shot him in the back, but he told jurors that "word on the street" pinned it on "Dre" and "K-Rock."

Prosecutors had no other eyewitnesses, no gun, no bullet casings. One other issue complicated the case: The police detective originally assigned as the lead investigator also arrived at the courthouse in handcuffs — charged last summer with trafficking heroin — though he was never called to testify.

The trial that ended Thursday was fraught with many of the pitfalls common in the city's courthouse for years — a victim with a criminal past who didn't want to identify his assailants, a dearth of forensic evidence and questions about the thoroughness of the investigation.

The case also tested State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein's 2010 campaign promise to take to trial cases that his predecessor wouldn't — ones in which there is only a single witness without corroborating testimony.

Jurors took just three hours Thursday to acquit the defendants of attempted-murder, assault and gun charges, freeing 21-year-old Andre Royster and 22-year-old Kenny Leroy Hopewell, who had spent 18 months in jail awaiting their day in court.

"I think it was a total waste of time," said defense attorney Ivan J. Bates, who represented Royster, accused of pulling the trigger on Northwest Baltimore's Towanda Avenue in April 2010.

Bernstein, who declined to be interviewed, released a statement defending his stance.

"I promised the people of our city that I will take on the most challenging fights to make our streets safer," his statement said. "Now, when you actually try to win the most difficult cases, you occasionally lose … no matter how hard you worked. We didn't prevail this time, but you never prevail without trying to do so."

In his campaign, Bernstein called incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy too quick to plea-bargain cases away, saying it contributed to revolving-door justice that put repeat offenders back on the streets time after time. He said a prosecutor must "have the courage" to take on challenging cases in order to send a message to violent offenders.

Bates said he doubts Jessamy would have taken the suspects to trial for attempted murder given the meager evidence — one defendant's fingerprint from a plastic cup and a victim who picked the suspects from a photo lineup but was reluctant to name them in court.

The defense lawyer said one-witness cases can work, "but police have to at least attempt to corroborate the evidence somehow."

During the trial, Bates criticized police detectives for not finding a single person who was at the shooting scene — even though it was described as a virtual street party. He noted that Jessamy "wanted the police to do some work on a case like this."

Bates said prosecutors were offered a deal for the defendants to plead guilty to gun possession — "just so they could get out of jail." But he said Bernstein stepped in and declined, insisting that the defendants admit to using a handgun in the commission of a violent crime, which carries a five-year mandatory prison sentence.

Bernstein's spokesman, Mark Cheshire, confirmed Bates' account and said: "An outcome that did not result in prison time was unacceptable."

Bates said that a plea deal would at least have secured a conviction. "Jessamy would've got something," he said.

Hopewell has a past felony conviction for drug-dealing, and Royster was given probation before judgment in a prior assault case that Bates said stemmed from a fight. He said Royster attends school and works at the Baltimore Convention Center, and has been promised his job back.

The shooting on April 7, 2010, as presented by the prosecutor in her opening statement to jurors, was straightforward. While hanging out past midnight on Towanda Avenue, Mark Winchester, already high and drunk, refused to give Hopewell some of his marijuana.

Hopewell and his friend, Royster, pestered Winchester: "What about that weed?" Winchester answered, "Nope, I'm good."

Assistant State's Attorney Michelle Wilson said Royster then shot Winchester three times in the back and once in the forearm, and Hopewell chased the wounded man through two alleyways. She said Winchester glanced back once and took a swing at his pursuer, and then collapsed face down on Reisterstown Road, with $300 and eight vials of heroin in his pocket.

The lead detective on the case, Daniel G. Redd, spoke with Winchester at Sinai Hospital and compiled a list of names of people who had been on the street. Redd was transferred a month later, and his backup, Detective Alexi A. Correa, took over.

Correa testified that he reinterviewed Winchester in June 2010 and used information he found in Redd's notes. He said Winchester later gave a taped statement identifying "Dre" and "K-Rock" as his assailants, and descriptions that matched one suspect wearing glasses and the other with hair styled in dreadlocks.

But nearly two years later in court, the 32-year-old Winchester, who admitted in court to killing a man in 2007 and is serving prison time for gun possession, had no desire to talk about the shooting. Wilson warned jurors in her opening statement that she couldn't guarantee what her own key witness might say.

"I'll be honest," she said. "We're not sure what he's going to tell us."

On the witness stand, the handcuffed Winchester hesitated. Often speaking in hushed tones, he gave only vague answers, such as, "There were a whole bunch of people" on the street that night, and "everybody wanted a cigarette."

He summarized the entire shooting in a few sentences: "I was just hanging. My back was turned, so I didn't see what was going on or who it was. I just felt a shot. I just felt a shot, and I started running."

Of his interview with Correa, Winchester said, "I told him what was told to me about what happened. … Word on the street."

But Wilson slowly took Winchester through his 2010 police statement, getting him to admit what he had told Correa, even if he wouldn't directly identify a suspect in court. The victim conceded he picked the suspects out of photo lineups, that he initialed Royster's photo and added a note: "The person I picked was Dre, the person who shot me."

Wilson openly conceded to jurors the challenges of bringing such a case to court, asking them to believe what the victim had told police in 2010, not his rambling testimony in court this week.

"Mr. Winchester is familiar with the streets," Wilson told them during her closing argument Thursday. "This isn't 'word on the street' because Mr. Winchester knows who shot him. … Mr. Winchester couldn't be the one to say who did it. But he knows. … We're not here for street justice. We're here for real justice."

Winchester identified the two suspects in the courtroom as the same people he had picked out of the photo lineup. But the defense lawyer, Bates, pressed further, and reminded jurors that he had asked Winchester directly, "'Did Andre Royster shoot you on April 7?' His answer was no."

Hopewell's attorney, Russell A. Neverdon, questioned Correa's investigation, saying he merely took Redd's notes and talked with the victim, but made little effort to find the more than half-dozen people at the scene that night.

Correa testified that one phone number of a potential witness had been disconnected and that another person had moved. "Where is one eyewitness to corroborate what Mr. Winchester has said?" Neverdon asked jurors. "Show me one, and I will bow down right now."

Neverdon said, "'Word on the street' gets you shot. 'Word on the street' gets you killed. But 'word on the street' is not good enough to have two innocent men put in prison."

Bates reminded jurors that they had heard the name of the original lead detective throughout the trial but had never seen him. "The problem is, where is Detective Redd?" he asked rhetorically. Accusing Redd's replacement, Correa, of being "pretty lazy," Bates again noted that "Detective Redd was not here to testify."

Federal authorities arrested Redd in July 2010 and charged him with gun violations and heroin trafficking. One drug deal, according to court documents, occurred on the parking lot of the Northwest District police station. His trial has not yet been scheduled.

Redd was seated, handcuffed, in the courtroom for a few minutes Wednesday, but jurors who filed past him, passing within a couple of feet, didn't know who he was.

While Wilson didn't call Redd to the stand, Bates threatened to. Without the jury present, Circuit Judge George L. Russell III tried to work out just how the detective would appear.

Wilson told Russell that she didn't want jurors to see the detective in handcuffs. But Russell overruled her, saying quickly, "That's not going to happen. A federal magistrate has decided that he is a danger to the community or a flight risk."

Bates said Thursday that the detective's absence was noted. He quizzed jurors after the verdict, he said, and several asked: "If this is Detective Redd's case, where is Detective Redd?"

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