By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
A federal jury acquitted two D.C. police detectives yesterday of all charges that they had coaxed witnesses to change their stories so they could frame a man for a high-profile killing at a dance club.
The jury, which returned the verdict after a day of deliberations, rejected prosecutors' accusations that detectives Erick Brown and Milagros Morales persuaded three key witnesses to alter their original accounts of the stabbing at Club U on Feb. 13, 2005.
The witnesses initially told the detectives that they saw a man, later identified as Jerome Jones, slashing at Terrence Brown with a box cutter on the dance floor of the Northwest Washington club.
But a prosecutor balked at the detectives' request for a warrant to arrest Jones when forensic tests showed a box cutter couldn't have delivered the fatal blow -- and that a longer knife killed the victim.
Later, after being re-interviewed by the detectives, the witnesses told the prosecutor that the weapon was a shiny metal object rather than a box cutter and that they had witnessed a stabbing motion rather than a slashing motion.
The prosecutor, Jennifer Anderson, said she grew suspicious, and one of the witnesses tearfully admitted that detectives told her to change her story.
Concerns by Anderson and other prosecutors led to an internal review of previous homicide cases handled by Erick Brown and Morales and later to their indictment in federal court on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and giving false information. The detectives have been on administrative leave.
As the jury forewoman announced the group's decision in open court, Erick Brown wiped away tears with his coat jacket, and Morales quietly wept and rocked back and forth. As the jurors were excused by the judge and rose to leave, Brown jumped up and yelled: "Thank you!"
Brown and Morales declined to comment as they left the courthouse, saying they were too emotional to speak publicly.
"We're relieved, obviously," said Reid Weingarten, one of their defense attorneys. "It's important for law enforcement to police itself. But this is not a case that should have been brought."
The trial was closely watched for several reasons. It is rare for prosecutors to bring such serious misconduct charges against detectives. The killing also drew much attention because it took place at a club housed in the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center; after the slaying, the club shut down.
Jones was convicted of assault, but no one was charged in Terrence Brown's killing.
The case also featured an unusual government witness: a sitting D.C. Superior Court judge.
Anderson, a tough, respected prosecutor who was the first to accuse the detectives of wrongdoing, now sits on the local bench.
Finally, one defense attorney raised eyebrows in the court and in Washington's legal circles by accusing that sitting judge of being vindictive, spinning the facts to "get" two detectives she didn't like or trust.
Departing jurors interviewed yesterday said their group reached its not-guilty verdict fairly easily because they found the government's case weak.
"They really only had one witness who said the detectives asked her to change her story, and she had admitted to lying once to Jennifer Anderson," said Demetrius Garrett, 35, a information technology specialist.
"Then on the stand she said more things that weren't very believable."
Garrett said he agreed with the claims of defense attorneys that heated arguments between Erick Brown and Anderson might have led the prosecutor to assume the worst about the detectives.
"It seemed like a situation that got out of control," Garrett said. "When she got challenged, she got mad . . . and she went over the top by bringing this case."
Another juror, 25, who identified himself only as Michael, said the government presented bits of evidence that didn't add up.
"There was reasonable doubt all over the place," he said.
The public corruption section of the U.S. attorney's office initially recommended not going forward with the case. Eventually, the Justice Department recused the local office and assigned federal prosecutors from Virginia to the case.
Thomas A. DiBiase, a former deputy homicide chief prosecutor who tried Jones for assault, said that Anderson's concerns were justified and that the detectives had to be prosecuted to protect the integrity of the local justice system.
"As always, I respect every jury, but the actions of the detectives in this case were an outrage and a discredit to the Metropolitan Police Department and every good homicide detective working there," he said.