washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Maryland > Crime

Ballistics Database Yields 1st Conviction

Oxon Hill Man Tied To Murder Weapon

By Ruben Castaneda and David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 2, 2005; Page B01

Evidence linking an Oxon Hill man to a murder weapon -- the equivalent of a handgun's fingerprint -- yesterday helped Prince George's County prosecutors win a first-degree murder case.

The verdict against Robert Garner, 21, marked the first time that prosecutors in Maryland have used information from a statewide ballistics database to obtain a conviction, law enforcement officials said. The conviction comes as some Maryland lawmakers are trying to kill the Integrated Ballistics Identification System because they say it is ineffective.

Kelvin Braxton, 22, was shot to death last April in Oxon Hill.

After a four-day trial, the Circuit Court jury convicted Garner of killing Kelvin Braxton, 22, outside a Popeyes chicken restaurant in Oxon Hill the evening of April 23. Garner is scheduled to be sentenced May 6.

Although the weapon, a .40-caliber handgun, never was found, county police and prosecutors connected the firearm to Garner through 10 shell casings found at the scene. A handgun leaves unique markings on shell casings each time it is fired, according to firearms experts.

The casings recovered at the murder scene matched a casing that was on file with Maryland State Police, showing that the weapon was purchased by Garner's then-girlfriend (now his wife) in a Forestville store about three weeks before the killing, according to trial testimony.

"That evidence was the cornerstone of our case," said Glenn F. Ivey, the Prince George's state's attorney. "It was powerful evidence. I hope this verdict helps our efforts to have the [ballistics identification database] continued and expanded."

The database was created by state lawmakers in 2000; New York is the only other state with such a law. The program came under criticism this year after Maryland State Police issued a report saying it was costly and ineffective.

Since the law's inception, state police have gathered test-fired shell casings from more than 43,000 handguns sold in the state, according to the report, which was compiled last fall. Police had used the database 208 times, yielding six "hits," or matches, the report said. The program had cost the state $2.6 million and had produced no convictions, the report said.

Gun advocates cited the report in calling for the program to be ended.

Andrew Arulanandam, a National Rifle Association spokesman, said the markings that firearms leave on shell casings can be altered, rendering the identification program ineffective. Arulanandam said yesterday that the Garner case did not change the NRA's position.

Del. Joan Cadden (D-Anne Arundel), a sponsor of legislation to end the program, said she was unaware that evidence obtained from the database was being used in a Prince George's murder prosecution until informed yesterday by a reporter.

No vote has been taken on the legislation. "If it doesn't pass this year, we have another year to study it," Cadden said.

According to court testimony, Braxton tried to shake Garner's hand about 7 p.m. inside the Popeyes in the 6200 block of Livingston Road.

Garner refused to shake hands, and the men exchanged angry words, according to testimony.

After Braxton got his food order and slid into the passenger seat of a friend's car, Garner opened fire, hitting Braxton multiple times, according to prosecution witnesses. Braxton tumbled out of the car and tried to crawl away, but Garner stepped up to him and fired a shot into his head, witnesses testified.

County homicide Detective Charles Richardson asked state police to check a shell casing found at the scene against its database, and the casing matched a gun purchased by Garner's girlfriend, according to trial testimony.

In his closing argument Thursday, Assistant State's Attorney William D. Moomau referred to the Maryland law requiring state police to gather shell casings. "Thank goodness Maryland has it for cases like this," Moomau said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company