A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge briefly halted the rape trial of Timothy Joseph Buzbee yesterday so the judge could determine whether the jurors had been tainted by a report in the Montgomery Sentinel that said Buzbee had told a fellow inmate he committed one of the rapes with which he is charged.
The trial resumed after Judge John J. Mitchell determined by questioning the jurors privately that none "had been exposed" to the newspaper article or to radio and television reports about it, Mitchell said during a recess.
Meanwhile, the county state's attorney's office began an inquiry into the inmate's claim. Deputy State's Attorney Louis S. Lear said, "We're going to take some action," but he declined to be more specific.
"We have started to investigate," Lear said. "Naturally we want to get to the bottom of it. We've started some inquiries."
Buzbee's attorney, Reginald W. Bours III, said his client "absolutely did not" tell a fellow inmate that he had committed any rapes. Buzbee, who has been held at the detention center in Rockville since November, is currently on trial on charges stemming from a 1981 abduction and rape. He is scheduled to stand trial in coming months for three other rapes, which have come to be known as the Aspen Hill rapes for the neighborhood in which they occurred. Buzbee has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
The inmate, Charles Stanley Bercovitz, who was not identified in the Sentinel story, told reporters yesterday that Buzbee told him last February he had committed one of the rapes with which he is charged. Bercovitz, 31, a Silver Spring native, was released from the detention center last week after serving 15 months on drug-possession charges.
Bercovitz quoted Buzbee as saying, "I did it and this credit card thing is like putting the nail in the coffin."
Buzbee has been indicted on charges of rape, kidnaping and robbery in an incident that occurred on March 9, 1982. According to that indictment, an Exxon credit card was taken from the victim. Prosecutors have said in court that they found the credit card in a drawer of Buzbee's desk at the surveying firm where he works.
According to Bercovitz, Buzbee made the statement while "on the verge of tears" after returning from a talk with his attorney. Bercovitz quoted Buzbee as saying that the lawyer told him the credit card evidence was going to be used against him.
Defense attorney Bours said he is "convinced that no such conversation between Buzbee and Bercovitz ever took place." He added that "nothing had happened in the case at that point to provoke Tim to talk about the credit card."
Bercovitz said he decided to talk to the Sentinel reporter this week after sitting next to him at the current trial. "I wanted to ease my conscience," Bercovitz said.
Bercovitz also said Buzbee told him he had twice been offered plea bargains by prosecutors, and that Buzbee said he turned them down. According to Bercovitz, Buzbee told him that at one point he was offered a life sentence in exchange for a plea of guilty to four rape charges. Last week, according to Bercovitz, Buzbee told him he was offered a 20-year sentence in exchange for guilty pleas to two rape charges.
Bours and Assistant State's Attorney Barry Hamilton both refused comment on the alleged plea-bargain offers.
The jury in the current Buzbee trial has not been sequestered. The judge has ordered the jurors not to read newspapers until someone else has removed all articles about the trial. They may watch television, but are not to watch any news programs, under the judge's orders.
On Wednesday night, however, WJLA-TV broadcast a short announcement during regular programming that gave details of the Sentinel story about Buzbee. Lawyers for Buzbee feared that jurors might have inadvertently heard that broadcast and that it would impair their ability to reach a fair verdict in the current case.
If a juror had acknowledged seeing the report, it would be up to the judge to determine if that juror's ability to reach a fair verdict had been impaired. The remedies to deal with this situation range from excusing a juror and replacing him with an alternate juror to declaring a mistrial in the case.
When the trial resumed yesterday, the prosecution called an array of witnesses to bolster its contention, made as the trial opened, that Buzbee abducted a 15-year-old victim from her home, used his silver Toyota to take her to the Flower Valley home of his parents, and then raped her.
Bours, however, has contended that the authorities are prosecuting "the wrong man" and are "attempting to stretch and strain the evidence to fit Mr. Buzbee . . . "
Michael J. Price, a Metro transit police officer who testified that he had been friends with Buzbee for about 10 years, said that Buzbee, who now has a beard and has worn wire-rimmed glasses throughout the trial, also wears contact lenses frequently and did not always have a beard. Price also said that at times Buzbee would "have a day or two's growth of beard." Price told the jury that Buzbee, whose straight brown hair is worn short, previously wore his hair longer. At those times, Price testified, it was "a little bit wavier or curlier."
The rape victim, who testified that she could see out from under the blindfold her attacker put on her, has said that her assailant had "brown, wavy hair," that his face "hadn't been shaved in a couple of days," and that he did not wear glasses.
Under questioning by Bours, however, Price acknowledged that he had no personal knowledge of Buzbee's appearance from June 1980 until August 1982. The rape for which Buzbee is on trial occurred in July 1981.