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Baltimore poised to offer $8 million settlement to family of man exonerated after serving 17 years for murder

Baltimore’s spending board is poised to approve an $8 million settlement with the family of a man who was exonerated after serving 17 years in prison on a homicide charge.

The settlement, which is due to be approved Wednesday by the city’s Board of Estimates, would close out a lawsuit filed by the family of Malcolm J. Bryant. Bryant was convicted of killing 16-year-old Toni Bullock in 1998. His sentence was vacated in 2016 with the help of the Maryland Innocence Project after a court-ordered DNA test on the victim’s nail clippings revealed a partial DNA profile that did not match Bryant.

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Bryant was released from prison in 2016 and died in early 2017 at age 42.

Bryant’s family sued the Baltimore Police Department as well as Detective William F. Ritz and forensic analyst Barry Verger in 2019 arguing their failure to disclose exculpatory evidence led to Bryant’s wrongful conviction.

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The city law department’s settlement committee has recommended settling the case, according to the Board of Estimates agenda for Wednesday. An attorney for Bryant’s family was not available for comment.

In their lawsuit, the Bryant estate argued Ritz failed to disclose knowledge of another eyewitness whose account contradicted and undermined testimony from the only eyewitness to Bullock’s death used at trial. Ritz also allegedly failed to disclose multiple pieces of evidence pointing to another possible suspect in the case.

The suit states Verger allegedly failed to examine the fingernail clippings for DNA and falsely reported the fingernails were consumed, meaning no further testing was possible.

Bullock, an 11th-grader at Carver Vocational-Technical High School who aspired to be an accountant, was walking home from a drugstore with her best friend on Nov. 20, 1998, when a man dragged her into a vacant lot and stabbed her multiple times.

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Police released a composite sketch, and presented Bullock’s friend with a photo lineup that included Bryant. The friend picked him out as the killer.

Bryant produced alibi witnesses, but he was convicted of murder by a city jury the following year. While in prison, Bryant maintained his innocence, and won numerous court orders to test evidence related to the case.

In 2011, a court-ordered DNA test on Bullock’s nail clippings revealed a partial DNA profile that included a rare identifier that did not match Bryant. Attorneys with the Innocence Project later obtained a court order to test a T-shirt that was worn by Bullock, which revealed a full DNA profile that matched the partial profile from the nail clippings.

With the lab results in hand, prosecutors re-interviewed witnesses, visited the crime scene, and talked to Bryant’s alibi witnesses.

“The only plausible reason … is that the DNA is in fact that of the killer,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in 2016. “And the DNA does not match that of Malcolm Bryant, which in all probability means he is not the killer.”

The lawsuit, brought by Bryant’s sons, Lamar Estep and Malique Bryant, sought unspecified damages, compensation for attorneys fees and punitive damages against each defendant.

The settlement is one of the largest finalized by Baltimore in recent years related to conduct of the Baltimore Police Department. In 2020, the city paid out nearly $8 million to Umar Burley and Brent Matthews who were both sent to federal prison for drugs planted in their vehicle in 2010 by the department’s disgraced Gun Trace Task Force.

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