Investigator Accused Of Threat to Witness

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007

A private investigator who has worked regularly for the Montgomery County public defender's office and for private defense lawyers in the county has been indicted for allegedly threatening an inmate who offered to testify for the state.

Michael S. Race, who worked as a homicide investigator for the New York City Police Department for two decades before becoming a private investigator, was charged in January with three felonies for allegedly threatening to harm a would-be state witness who offered to provide information to prosecutors about a child abuse case. Race was working on the case for the public defender's office.

Race's work as an investigator has come under scrutiny in the past, and he has been the subject of numerous newspaper stories in New York City. He has been accused of helping to convict innocent people -- allegations Race has denied.

The indictment, which was sealed at the request of prosecutors, was unsealed earlier this month.

Reached on his cellphone Thursday and asked about the indictment and his controversial role in cases in New York, Race said he would like to "discuss this like gentlemen" during an interview. But he did not respond to a telephone call yesterday. Race's attorney said the allegations are baseless.

"We intend to vigorously defend him," said attorney Barry Helfand, who has hired Race to investigate cases. "I only know him to be a thorough, bright, honorable investigator."

The public defender's officer retained Race to work in a case involving a man charged with assaulting and abusing his 2-month-old son. Prosecutors say defendant Leon Calloway shook the infant, injuring him seriously. The defense intends to argue that the assailant could have been the boy's mother, according to court records.

Hours before Calloway was to go on trial on Jan. 8, one of the prosecutors got a call from an inmate at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Clarksburg.

The inmate, Nicholas Watson, who was also being represented by the public defender's office, told the prosecutor that he had incriminating evidence against Calloway. Watson pleaded guilty to assault after being charged with stabbing a man in October 2006.

Calloway's attorneys asked for an extension, arguing that they needed time to prepare for Watson's testimony. A judge agreed that Watson's likely testimony could constitute "powerful evidence," and postponed the trial date.

The next day Race went to the jail and had a conversation with Watson. The conversation is described vaguely in the indictment, and the prosecutor assigned to the case declined to elaborate. Helfand said prosecutors allege that Race threatened to disclose publicly that Watson was cooperating with law enforcement officials.

"He said to the prisoner: 'Do you want it to be known that you're a snitch?' " Helfand said, describing the state's allegation. "Race denies all of this. He says he never did anything like that."

Race has been licensed as a private investigator in Maryland since September 2004, according to the Maryland State Police, which issues private investigator licenses. His company, Race Investigations, is located at 14019 Bauer Dr. in Rockville.

Montgomery County Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said Race has done work for the office sporadically for two years. He declined to comment on whether the office was aware of the criticism of Race's work in New York, but said his office has taken steps to review other cases Race handled.

Assistant State's Attorney Bryan Roslund, who is prosecuting Race, declined to say whether his office is examining cases Race investigated for the defense.

Race worked at the New York City police department from 1973 until 1993. He spent several years investigating homicides in the 75th Precinct, which was then one of the city's high-crime areas. Race said in a deposition that he supervised or participated in more than 750 homicide investigations.

After retiring, Race became a private investigator and made headlines after working on cases that led to the exoneration of wrongfully convicted inmates. He was profiled in a front-page New York Times article in June 2001. Race was portrayed in the story as a dogged champion for the wrongly convicted, and some critics wondered whether he was taking on exoneration cases in an attempt to redeem what they saw as the mistakes he made as cop.

Several murder convictions secured in New York during his years as an officer have been overturned. Several lawyers and law enforcement officials familiar with investigations at the time said in news reports that the crush of cases led to sloppy police work and wrongful convictions.

"Race is recovering from what he used to do," Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes told the Times. "Maybe he has honest guilt."

Later in 2001, prompted by questions raised by reporters at New York Daily News, then-New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik reopened dozens of cases Race closed when he was a supervisor in the 75th Precinct. The newspaper reported that Race closed 80 homicides by saying that the suspect was dead, in prison for life or in a country from which he could not be extradited. The files were transferred to the department's cold case unit for further review, after investigators concluded that the number of cases he closed without an arrest was suspiciously high, news reports said.

"They didn't much care how they did it," said New York lawyer Richard Gross, who represented a man who spent 16 months in jail after being charged with murder. His client received a $1.25 million settlement after filing a lawsuit against the city and an investigator Race supervised.

In previous interviews and court proceedings Race has denied being dishonest in his work as an officer.

Race was sued in federal court in 2001 by a man convicted of murder who was exonerated after one of Race's informants recanted. The lawsuit is expected to go to before a jury in New York soon.

In 2003 Race made the news again, this time for his work as a private investigator. A judge granted a convicted murderer a new trial after a state witness recanted his story. The witness, Henry Hanley, testified at the new trial that he changed his story after Race threatened to have him charged with murder. Race was working for the convicted man.

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