Montgomery Slaying Suspect's Own Hand Helps Seal His Fate

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

By the time the letter marked "Return to Sender" was opened by an employee at the Montgomery County jail, prosecutors had assembled a strong case against Quinton J. Thomas: They had the cooperation of a woman who said she helped Thomas plan a robbery, and they had cellphone records that appeared to place Thomas near the Germantown parking lot where the victim of that planned robbery was fatally shot.

Things looked so bad for Thomas, in fact, that his attorney had been urging him to consider pleading guilty to first-degree murder. Irritated, Thomas wrote a friend to complain about the attorney, Barry Helfand.

"Is this cracker stupid or he workin wit da state," Thomas wrote in profanity-laced, handwritten, four-page letter postmarked April 20. "I aint taken no plea to M1, ya hear me! They still Dont got no gun, eye witness, DNA, balistics, nothin."

What they did have, after it was returned to its sender, was the letter. On Tuesday, a Montgomery jury found Thomas, 22, guilty of murder and other crimes in connection with the Dec. 27, 2005, slaying of Stephen W. Kelley, 20, of Gaithersburg.

In the letter, Thomas asked his friend, a District resident, to keep a potential witness from testifying at his trial. "This white [expletive] can't make it to court on May 7 through May 12, ya feel me," Thomas wrote. "I don't care what you gotta do, you don't even gotta stink the cracker, he just cant make it to Rockville that whole week Homie."

Thomas told the letter's recipient what to do if he ran across the witness or others Thomas viewed as potentially damaging. "Man put they [expletive] IN THE DIRT, REAL TALK," he wrote.

The jail does not generally read inmates' outgoing mail, but it routinely screens incoming mail for contraband. After it was intercepted, the letter Thomas wrote was faxed to the Montgomery state's attorney's office May 2.

Prosecutors added three new counts -- one of solicitation to commit murder and two of witness intimidation -- to the original indictment that charged Thomas with first-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The jury convicted him of all counts after deliberating for about seven hours. Sentencing is set for Oct. 15.

In the letter, Thomas wrote that the witness he was most concerned about, a Howard University student, had told detectives that "he gave me the pump and shells."

Thomas wrote that he had found a way to explain the cellphone evidence: "Dae got some phone calls sayin I was in the area around the time he got smoked but I got my man sayin he had my phone cause he live around the same spot. So I aint trippin on that."

Helfand successfully argued that he ought to be recused from the case because remarks in the letter had unwittingly made him a potential witness.

After that letter came to light, Thomas was segregated from the general population at the jail and lost his letter-writing privilege. Jail officials later caught him trying to slip another inmate a note to mail, prosecutors said.

After the letter was intercepted, detectives searched Thomas's cell and his girlfriend's home. They found other letters, in which Thomas asked his girlfriend to falsely testify that he was with her at home the morning Kelley was killed, according to prosecutors.

In one of the confiscated letters, the girlfriend discussed her upcoming testimony as an alibi witness. "First of all, I didn't say I wasn't coming to court. I only said something about purgury. To answer your question . . . no I do not feel uncomfortable, I am ready for court . . . I would die for you."

Marc G. Hall, who represented Thomas at trial, said: "It was a very difficult case. He and his family are very disappointed by the outcome."

Hall said Thomas testified that he wrote the letters because "he had become very frustrated and he felt all these people were lying about his involvement." Thomas has denied "that he was asking anyone to harm anyone," he said.

According to police, the night before Kelley was shot, in the 18400 block of Stone Hollow Drive in the Stoneridge townhouse community, Thomas announced that he was going to "rob a white boy named Steve." Earlier, he had asked people if they "knew of any white boys he could rob," according to a police charging document.

Kelley drove to the parking lot in Germantown with Keisha Branscomb, who would later plead guilty to second-degree murder and testify that she believed she was setting Kelley up for a robbery. Kelley was hoping to buy drugs from Thomas that morning, Branscomb said.

The letter Quinton J. Thomas wrote to a friend that implicated himself was intercepted and used as evidence at his trial:
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