Man Gets No Added Jail Time in Plea in '93 Killing

Cindy Minter, sister of Nelson Minter, and Mary Jane Alexander, their mother, said that Kenneth L. Claggett seemed unrepentant.
Cindy Minter, sister of Nelson Minter, and Mary Jane Alexander, their mother, said that Kenneth L. Claggett seemed unrepentant. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A former firefighter accused of fatally beating his girlfriend's ex-husband in 1993 and then setting the man's Montgomery County house on fire to cover up the crime pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter yesterday and was sentenced to no jail time beyond the seven months he served while awaiting trial.

Prosecutors from State's Attorney John McCarthy's office said they made the plea offer -- which criminal defense lawyers described as extraordinarily generous in a first-degree murder case -- largely because a recent test of the inside of a jacket police say the assailant wore on the night of the slaying yielded DNA profiles of two people, but not the defendant, Kenneth L. Claggett. Also, they said the recent loss of electronic data from DNA tests at the Montgomery County forensic lab might, to a lesser degree, have weakened their case.

In a statement last night, McCarthy's office said prosecutors were satisfied with the outcome -- a 10-year suspended sentence and unsupervised probation -- given "the age of the case, the state of the evidence collected years ago, the faded memories of many witnesses, and most significantly, the recent additional DNA results."

Claggett agreed to take responsibility for the slaying of Nelson Minter on the condition that Minter's mother not be in the courtroom when he pleaded guilty. She agreed and entered the courtroom only for the sentencing portion of the hearing.

"I miss my son every single day," Mary Jane Alexander, 76, said during the sentencing.

"My family has been serving a life sentence," said Cindy Minter, the victim's sister.

Claggett, 43, who now lives in Frederick, looked down as the women spoke. He was given an opportunity to speak but declined.

Circuit Court Judge Eric M. Johnson could have refused to accept the plea, but, having accepted it, he was bound by its terms, which called for no additional jail time, according to Charles Lipscomb, an attorney for Claggett. Lipscomb called the plea offer "unbelievable."

Alexander said she was not notified about the tentative plea deal until Monday. She said Assistant State's Attorney Debra S. Grimes told her that she hadn't told her earlier because she didn't want to spoil her Thanksgiving. The prosecutor's office confirmed that the conversation took place.

"Many of my Thanksgivings have been ruined so far and many more to come," Alexander said. "She doesn't need to worry about ruining my Thanksgiving."

Alexander said she was initially angry about the plea arrangement but ultimately supported it, since it offered some closure. Grimes, she said, "gave it her all."

After the sentencing, Alexander and Cindy Minter said they were troubled that Claggett appeared to be unrepentant. "He has not apologized to my family," Cindy Minter said. "I didn't hear anything indicating that he was sorry for what he did. The most healing thing for my family would be for him to say he's sorry. I would rather have that than jail time."

Prosecutors said that, in the months before he was killed, Nelson Minter fought with his ex-wife, Karen, who was then dating Claggett, over money and custody of their son. The night before his death, according to prosecutors, Minter, who was wealthy, told his wife that he would no longer support her financially. She believed, wrongly, that his $500,000 life insurance policy was in her name, prosecutors have said.

On the night of Dec. 3, Minter was killed during a struggle at his house in Boyds, and the house was set on fire with Zippo lighter fluid.

Claggett, who prosecutors said had scratches and a sprained ankle the day after Minter's death, was soon charged with first-degree murder. The next February, detectives seized a camouflage jacket that belonged to him. Forensic tests showed that a stain on the sleeve was consistent with a DNA sample from Nelson Minter. But the match was not conclusive. Officials dropped the charge later that year.

This spring, cold-case detectives had the jacket retested using technology that did not exist in 1994. Forensic scientists conclusively identified the stain on the sleeve as Nelson Minter's blood, prosecutors have said. In May, authorities again charged Claggett with first-degree murder.

In July, the computer system for the police department's DNA lab crashed, leading to the loss of electronic data that support the conclusions of DNA tests. Lab officials have said the loss was negligible because printouts of the results of tests remain in case files. Prosecutors contended that the loss of data didn't change the fact that Nelson Minter's blood was on the jacket, which they said belonged to Claggett.

But Lipscomb and fellow defense attorney Stephen Mercer argued that the DNA evidence should be inadmissible because of the data loss. They argued that the raw electronic data would include additional information that might have allowed them to explore possibilities police scientists weren't looking for, potentially raising questions about other suspects and about whether police followed chain-of-custody procedures with the key piece of evidence. A hearing to argue the admissibility of the DNA data was scheduled for yesterday.

Last week, prosecutors learned that an analysis of the inside of the jacket yielded no trace of Claggett but did reveal samples consistent with Karen Minter and a person who has not been identified. Prosecutors and lab officials concluded that it was unnecessary to retest the sample on the sleeve, and they said last night that the printout of the earlier test results was sufficient.

Alexander said Grimes told her the loss of the electronic data was one of the main reasons the state made the plea offer. But prosecutors last night downplayed the significance of the loss.

"The only conceivable way that the loss of this electronic data could have negatively impacted the case was by confusing jurors about the importance of it or by causing some jurors to viscerally hold it against the state in an old case based on circumstantial evidence," they said in the statement.

In accepting the plea deal, Johnson, the judge, said he was deferring to the judgment of lawyers who have "greater knowledge of this case."

The judge told Claggett, "If there's any credit to you at all, it's that you did not put this family and this community through a trial."

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