Editor's note: This article has been updated from an earlier version
Criminal trials typically end once the jury returns its verdict. The attorneys move on to their next cases, unless appeal is pursued, and the debate ends. Unfortunately, that has not been the case after the recent trial of State v. Joseph Walker in Anne Arundel County.
An Anne Arundel County grand jury indicted the defendant in this case for murder and other offenses after a Maryland State Police investigation revealed strong evidence that the defendant shot and killed an unarmed man during a road rage incident. The case received significant attention because the defendant is an investigator who works for a New Jersey prosecutor's office. High profile criminal cases involving a law enforcement officer are especially difficult because, among other things, a potential violation of the public trust is at issue.
Mr. Walker's lawyers resorted to unjustified personal attacks and misleading publicity to try the case in the press. This led the court to impose an unusual order prohibiting counsel from participating in pretrial and trial publicity. Following a nine-day trial and eight hours of deliberations over two days, the jury acquitted the defendant. We tried the case because the investigation revealed strong evidence that the defendant committed murder, however we of course respect the jury's decision. Whether a party believes the outcome was right or wrong, this is how the criminal justice system works.
And then we move on to do our best job investigating and prosecuting the next case.
Disappointingly, the defense lawyers in the case have not moved on. Instead, they falsely accuse my office of "misconduct" for prosecuting the case ("Prosecutorial indiscretion," Aug. 8). In their op-ed, these attorneys made false accusations against the prosecutor who handled the case, Michael Dunty. Mr. Dunty has been a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County for his entire career and is the head of our Violent Crime Unit. He has a stellar reputation in the court house and is a seasoned, veteran prosecutor with experience trying violent crimes. Mr. Dunty is consistently praised by judges, defense lawyers and the public for his thoroughness, dedication, skill and ethics.
A homicide trial is serious business, especially one involving a defendant employed in law enforcement. . I would not normally respond to post-trial commentary by counsel, however the defense lawyers have, for their own purposes, resumed an unjustified campaign of misleading attacks including the serious distortions in their Aug. 8 op-ed. The public has a right to understand what actually happened in this case and challenge the defense lawyers' motives for misrepresenting it. It requires this factual response.
We will focus on these misrepresentations: 1) whether the prosecutor misled to the grand jury in order to obtain an indictment; 2) the circumstances concerning disclosure of a Maryland State Police ballistics report for the weapon used to kill the victim; 3) whether the prosecutor improperly struck potential jurors from the panel on the basis of their race; and 4) the supposed "failure" by the prosecutor to call a witness to testify in the case.
The court considered and rejected all of their complaints. The facts are in the public record. Why, then, did they misrepresent these things to the public and why do they continue to rehash their unsuccessful arguments? Maybe they think it is good for business. We believe that professionals are held to a higher standard than this.
The defense attorneys falsely accused Mr. Dunty of misleading the grand jury about whether the victim stopped walking toward the defendant when the defendant brandished his handgun. They claim Mr. Dunty did this to obtain an indictment against the defendant. Untrue. The public trial record of this case clarifies the matter. Two witnesses testified that the victim stopped approaching the defendant and held his hands up in a "surrender pose" shortly before the defendant shot him dead in the street. One of the witnesses confirmed these facts nine times during her statement to Maryland State Police, and reconfirmed those facts several times during her trial testimony.
The defense attorneys also falsely accused Mr. Dunty of intentionally misleading the grand jury in order to obtain an indictment. Rejecting the defense lawyers' accusations, the trial judge recognized that an honest misstatement by the trial prosecutor did not affect the grand jury's indictment because there was substantial other evidence that Mr. Walker was criminally liable for killing Mr. Joseph Harvey. The court gave examples of that evidence and specifically found that the prosecution did not present false or perjured testimony to the grand jury. The court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss the indictment.
Ballistics Report on Defendant's Gun Used to Kill Mr. Harvey
The defense lawyers' op-ed also accused Mr. Dunty of giving them what they called an "exculpatory" ballistics report on the defendant's gun the day before the trial rather than earlier. They claim that this report somehow helped the defendant's case and that was why it was "withheld."
Untrue, again. The prosecutor did not request that the Maryland State Police perform any ballistics testing in this case. There was no need to test Mr. Walker's gun because he admitted shooting Mr. Harvey with it; matching casings were found at the scene and therefore ballistics evidence was of no consequence. The Maryland State Police crime lab independently tested the weapon and wrote a report shortly before trial. Mr. Dunty turned the report over to the defense lawyers as soon as he received it from the police. Thus, the defense lawyers received the report at the same time as Mr. Dunty. Neither party used the report at trial. If the report truly were exculpatory you bet the lawyers would have used it.
As before, the court considered the issues relating to the ballistics report and denied the defense lawyers' motion to dismiss the case.
In a disappointing effort to inject race into a case that had nothing to do with race or hate crimes, the defense lawyers next argue that Mr. Dunty improperly removed potential jurors from the panel because they were African-American and for that reason may favor the defendant (who is African-American; the victim was white). Rejecting the defense lawyers' claims, the judge ruled that Mr. Dunty did not remove any potential jurors because of their race.
Failure to Call a Witness
The defense lawyers also falsely accused Mr. Dunty of not calling an "independent witness" that they claimed would have helped the defendant's case. Again, the defense lawyers' letter does not tell the whole story. Any trial attorney knows parties are not obligated to call witnesses the other side wants to call. But that issue aside, the so-called "independent witness" was initially interviewed by the Maryland State Police and made a statement incriminating the defendant. The witness later sent a letter to the State's Attorney's Office retracting everything he said to the police on the scene, claiming mental illness, past incarceration and that he simply was "not reliable." This person then refused to speak with my office about retracting his prior statement.
The defense lawyers were well aware of the problems with this witness' reliability because we provided them with a copy of that letter in advance of the trial. Nonetheless, they chose to call him as a witness. The witness suddenly was able to testify to details of the incident that he never told to the police and that helped the defendant.
We find it especially interesting that the witness "found" his memory, that it conflicted materially with his prior statements, and that he agreed to testify only after he met privately with the defense lawyers before the trial.
A trial is the search for truth. We take that obligation very seriously. This office will never offer the testimony of a witness who claims his own testimony is "unreliable." Our role is to seek justice and we will never compromise our ethical responsibilities by presenting questionable evidence.
Prosecuting this case was important and appropriate for many reasons. Witnesses testified that the defendant shot an unarmed man three times after the victim had assumed a hands-up, "surrender" posture. Our investigation into Mr. Walker's past conduct revealed that he was involved in two prior aggressive and threatening incidents as a police officer, including a prior road rage incident. In the other incident the defendant's own internal affairs department determined that he used his authority inappropriately to threaten a neighbor and was untruthful when asked about it. As with all the other things outlined here, that information is in the public record.
The mission of the State's Attorney's Office is to protect the public and prosecute crime. It includes an obligation to seek the truth, especially in difficult cases. Like other lawyers, prosecutors are obligated to be truthful and fair in their dealings with opposing counsel, courts, parties, witnesses and the public. All people accused of crime are entitled to a competent defense. Lawyers who resort to falsehoods and misrepresentations for their own purposes do immeasurable harm to our justice system and must be called out for doing so.
The case is over. The jury has spoken. The facts are in the record for all to read. The public record completely contradicts the lawyers' shameful spin. But it is time to move on to new serious business.
Anne Colt Leitess is state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.