Angela Sipes was gunned down in a Forestville apartment Dec. 15. Two weeks ago, she helped bring one of her killers to justice.
In a highly unusual move, prosecutors from the Prince George's state's attorney's office persuaded a Circuit Court judge to allow them to use a statement Sipes, 27, gave to police two days before she was shot to death, even though defense attorneys would have no opportunity to cross-examine her.
The opportunity to confront, or cross-examine, a witness is guaranteed in the Constitution.
The story began in the early hours of Dec. 12, when John Thomas, 34, was shot to death after a fight broke out at a card party Sipes attended in Forestville. Sipes told police that Keith Carroll, 21, was at the card party and ran away after shots were fired. Three days later, Sipes, who sometimes stayed at the apartment where the party took place, was gunned down there.
Prosecutors believe that Carroll and another man killed her because she was a witness in the Thomas slaying.
Seeking to persuade the judge to allow Sipes's statements to be used in the trial, Assistant State's Attorney John Maloney relied on an appellate court decision that said a defendant should not profit from killing a witness against him.
The appellate court decision stemmed from a 1993 District case in which Barbara Harmon, 27, witnessed her boyfriend being robbed, shot and wounded and identified the attacker to police. Three days later, the attacker, Kevin Devonshire, 25, and another man shot and killed Harmon.
Prosecutors used Harmon's statements against Devonshire, who was convicted of assaulting Harmon's boyfriend and killing Harmon.
Devonshire appealed the convictions, saying prosecutors should not have been allowed to use Harmon's statements to police against him because he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront her.
In 1997, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled against Devonshire. The court ruled that "a defendant who kills a witness who is expected to give damaging testimony against the killer in some future proceeding waives the right under the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment to object to the admission of that witness's out-of-court statements."
Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Steven I. Platt relied on that ruling to decide that prosecutors could use the statements Sipes made to police in the hours after Thomas was shot to death.
Sipes had told police that Carroll was at a card party on Dec. 12, the night that Thomas was shot to death. Sipes told police detectives that she did not witness the shooting but that she saw Carroll, of Forestville, run away after she heard shots fired. She picked Carroll out of a photo array.
On July 16, Carroll was convicted in the Thomas and Sipes murders.
During her closing argument, Assistant State's Attorney Tara Harrison called Carroll a "cold and ruthless killer." The jury convicted Carroll of two counts of first-degree murder, witness intimidation and other charges. He could get two terms of life in prison without parole and additional time when Platt sentences him Aug. 25.
Carroll was represented by the public defender's office. Joseph M. Niland, the county public defender, said his office plans on appealing Platt's ruling allowing Sipes's statement into evidence.
"We think this crosses the line and constitutes an infringement on the fundamental right of the defendant to confront his accuser," Niland said.
Robert Pugsley, a criminal law professor at Southwestern University of Law in Los Angeles, said other courts have allowed prosecutors to use statements from witnesses who were killed before they could appear in court.
Judges allow such evidence to be used if prosecutors can demonstrate a link between the fact that the witness gave information and the death of the witness, Pugsley said.
"It definitely is not unheard of," Pugsley said.
Two other defendants await trial in the slayings of Thomas and Sipes.
Edward Lawrence Cohen, 21, of the 3200 block of O Street SE in the District, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and witness intimidation; prosecutors believe he assaulted someone to make that person lure Thomas to the rear of the apartment, where Thomas was shot, and also participated in the Sipes slaying. He is scheduled to be tried Sept. 14.
Larry Juan Rowe, 16, of Forestville, is charged with first-degree murder and witness intimidation in the Sipes slaying. He is scheduled to be tried Sept. 1.