'Worst practices': Advocates decry tactics authorities used in Baltimore County sex-assault case

On Nov. 15, two Baltimore County police detectives sat down at a Chick-fil-A to interview the first of three University of Maryland, Baltimore County baseball players accused of rape, according to investigative notes obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The first interview began at 8:35 a.m. and lasted 22 minutes. The second lasted 15 minutes. All three interviews would be over in about an hour.

The interviews, conducted by Detectives Kristin Burrows and Nicholas Tomas, took place 26 days after a Towson University student told police the men had sexually assaulted her, according to the detectives’ notes.

According to one women’s legal advocate, such a delay is uncommon and the use of a fast-food location for sequential suspect interviews is “among the worst practices” she’s heard of.

The circumstances and timing of the interviews were among details to emerge in police reports, detective notes and text messages that were provided to The Sun and figure in a class-action lawsuit that alleges Baltimore County authorities humiliated, intimidated and deceived women as part of an intentional effort to “cover up justifiable complaints of sexual assault.”

The file also reveals that prosecutors were not confident that the case would meet the legal criteria for rape. And the notes indicate that Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever and high-ranking police commanders intervened to try to prevent the alleged victim from pursuing charges through court after prosecutors declined to press charges.

Defendants in the lawsuit include Shellenberger, the Baltimore County Police Department, UMBC and the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland, among others.

According to the detectives’ interviews with the Towson woman, a female friend she was with that night, and the UMBC men, all parties engaged in a long night of drinking before going to the female friend’s apartment, where everyone engaged in sexual acts.

The Sun is withholding the women’s names because it does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

The men told the police the women engaged in consensual, active sex with them, according to detectives’ notes.

The women told police that after they arrived at the apartment, they began consuming drinks that the men were serving and blacked or passed out, according to the notes. The friend, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told police the men were pressuring the women to drink, according to a police report.

The Towson woman told police she had patchy memories of intercourse at the apartment, according to a police report. She also recalled seeing her friend passed out on a bed and waking up enough to tell one of the men having intercourse with her “to stop several times,” according to the police report. Her friend didn’t remember anything after the drinks, according to detectives’ notes.

The two women reported to Towson University police the next morning that they had been sexually assaulted and both took a forensic exam for sexual assault.

The friend declined to pursue an investigation with Baltimore County police, according to police documentation. She now alleges in the lawsuit that she was coerced into waiving her rights for a police investigation.

The day after the Chick-fil-A interviews, prosecutor Dever reviewed the case with Burrows and declined to charge the men, according to detectives’ notes.

It is unclear why police waited a month to interview the men, or why they did it at a Chick-fil-A.

The Baltimore County police declined to answer questions, citing the lawsuit. The state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

Typically, such interviews would take place sooner and in the police station or at their residences, according to Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project.

“Interviewing suspects in a Chick-fil-A one after the other seems to be among the worst practices I have ever heard of,” she said.

After the state’s attorney’s office declined to press charges, the police closed the case, labeling it as “exceptionally cleared.” Per the FBI, that means law enforcement has identified a suspect and “gathered enough evidence to support an arrest [and] make a charge” — yet could not prosecute because of a “circumstance outside the control of law enforcement.” The agency gives such examples as the death of an assailant or a victim’s refusal to cooperate.

One key issue is whether the women were mentally incapacitated and whether the men knew or reasonably should have known the women were incapacitated.

The state’s attorney’s office filed a motion in March explaining why it did not file charges: “To prove rape the state must prove that either there was force used or the victim was so incapacitated she could not consent. The events described by the victim, do not meet the element of force or incapacitation as prescribed by statute.”

Legal experts point out that force is not required to prove sexual assault in Maryland, especially since the law was clarified last year. As to whether the alleged victim was in a state to consent, that is something that would typically be up to a jury to decide, said Michelle Daugherty Siri, a lawyer with the Towson-based Women’s Law Center.

The UMBC students’ lawyer, Ronald L. Schwartz, said that there was an important difference between “blacking out” and “incapacity.” He said he thought the state would have a hard time proving the women were incapacitated given the Towson student’s own memories of the night, in which she reported having active sex.

Plaintiff’s attorney Rig Baldwin V said whether the women were too mentally incapacitated to consent “is the type of question that could be determined by a jury.”

The men all described the women as actively engaged in having consensual sex with them, and not passed out, according to detectives’ notes.

After the state’s attorney’s office declined to charge the men, the Towson student applied for charges directly with a commissioner of a Maryland district court, according to detectives’ notes.

She wrote in the application for charges that she was “mentally incapacitated by alcohol and was physically helpless.”

In Maryland, civilians may apply for criminal charges directly with a district court commissioner if the police did not charge the suspects.

The first commissioner checked with the state’s attorney’s office, and then declined the charges, according to the detectives’ notes. The woman then applied to another commissioner, who agreed to charges of first-degree rape, among several other offenses.

After the second commissioner accepted charges against the men and issued criminal summonses, authorities moved quickly to dismiss them and prevent future charges, according to detectives’ notes. Burrows sent a text to a warrant officer asking him to interrupt the three criminal summonses about to be served to the men.

“This is Det. Burrows from Sex Crimes,” she texted the officer at 9:18 a.m. March 22. “Can you please let me know when you receive the summons for the boys I informed you about yesterday. I need to get them from you so the States Attorney can rescind them. I am also getting a lot of questions from my Major and Col. Thanks.”

After interrupting the warrants, Burrows, Tomas and a uniformed Baltimore County police officer drove to the woman’s house in North Baltimore to dissuade her from further attempts to charge the men, according to detectives’ notes.

Burrows had been directed to the woman’s house by Bonnie Fox, an investigator in the state’s attorney’s office, according to Burrows’ notes.

Burrows’ notes for that day read: “Detective Burrows spoke with Bonnie Fox, who advised Detective Burrows to respond to the victim’s residence and inform her to stop going to the commissioner and filing charges. Ms. Fox advised this was at the direction of Scott Shellenberger and ASA Lisa Dever.”

“This seems extraordinary and not something I have heard of,” Siri said.

But according to the detectives’ notes, the Towson student was not at home. The woman’s grandmother referred the detectives to her lawyer. After talking to Baldwin and Dever, the detectives decided not to meet with the woman, according to their notes.

The next day, on March 23, all the charges against the men were dismissed.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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