Wrongful convictions deter Baltimore witnesses

Marcus King tried to be a cooperative witness.

When Anthony Wooden was murdered just after midnight on Aug. 31, 1994, Diane Bailey said she’d seen the crime about to unfold through a third-story window that was 150 feet away, and implicated Marcus, who was 13, and four others. This was the second homicide Ms. Bailey claimed to have witnessed and the second time police compensated her for providing the information — with a new apartment.

Police arrested all the people Ms. Bailey named: Marcus, Daniel Ellison, Nicholas Richards, Kenneth McPherson and Eric Simmons. Teen-aged Marcus was described by police as “the weak link” and most likely to “break” and corroborate Ms. Bailey’s story.

After he was handcuffed to a table for hours, Marcus told police he’d been around the corner with Mr. McPherson when the shooting happened and that Mr. Simmons came by a bit later to see if Mr. McPherson was safe. He also told them Mr. Ellison had admitted to witnessing Mr. Richards and two others shoot Wooden.

That’s not what police wanted to hear. They yelled, called Marcus a liar, and threatened to charge him with murder. Marcus eventually realized that the only way to stop the interrogation was to implicate himself, along with Kenneth McPherson and Eric Simmons.

But he soon recanted and said repeatedly before trial and at trial that his original statement to police was the truth. In return, he was browbeaten by the prosecutor and called a “brat” by the judge. The jury convicted both Mr. McPherson and Mr. Simmons.

Unfortunately, police and prosecutors, blinded by tunnel vision, viewed everything through the lens of Ms. Bailey’s story and ignored more credible witnesses and information that contradicted her narrative. After 25 years, this injustice was finally corrected on May 3, when Mr. McPherson and Mr. Simmons were exonerated at the request of the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney and our offices.

Tunnel vision is common in our cases. Clarence Shipley was exonerated last December. Multiple witnesses told police in 1992 who the real perpetrator was, but they were ignored by law enforcement officials who instead credited the story of a witness, who received an undisclosed deal in exchange for testifying, and another witness who was covering up his own involvement in the crime.

Lamar Johnson was exonerated in 2017. Again, multiple witnesses in 2001 directed police to — and ultimately named — the real perpetrator, but police instead credited two problematic teenage eyewitnesses.

The harmful effects of law enforcement tunnel vision do not end with wrongful convictions. Tunnel vision also undermines community trust in the police and damages an already fraught relationship. Critically for Baltimore, it almost certainly deters witnesses from providing accurate information to police and prosecutors.

Witnesses to crimes understandably weigh the risks of talking to police against the potential rewards. In Baltimore, public attention to this issue has focused primarily on one risk: witness safety. The threats to witnesses are very real here. Unfortunately, the gravity of that threat has overshadowed consideration of other reasons that witnesses might hesitate to talk. Our cases suggest that even if witness safety is protected, citizens may still be reluctant to talk to the police, when they believe police will only credit information that fits their theory.

Cooperating with police can mean jeopardizing relationships, missing work and exposing yourself to scrutiny in a court. Witnesses who come forward with information and bear these burdens should receive respectful treatment and thorough and objective investigations of the information they provide.

Unfortunately, Baltimore witnesses have not been able to reliably expect those things. Too many are treated like Marcus or know people like him and the witnesses who tried to prevent Clarence Shipley’s conviction. Given this dynamic, it is not hard to understand why witnesses are so reluctant to come forward in Baltimore despite the high levels of violence.

This damaged trust can be repaired, however. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is working to correct and learn from wrongful convictions, and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison’s record in New Orleans suggests he’ll do the same. We hope they will use these cases to teach their employees about the perils of tunnel vision so they can rebuild trust and help ensure a safe city where the right people are convicted the right way.

Shawn Armbrust (sarmbrust@exonerate.org) is the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Michele Nethercott (mnethercott@ubalt.edu) is the director of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project Clinic.

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