Prince George's County juries acquitted four men late last month of various murder charges, following trials that included some notable setbacks for the prosecution.
Prosecutors and police appeared to stumble in two of the murder trials in Prince George's Circuit Court that ended with acquittals -- and, in one of those, a hung jury on a second-degree murder charge and a weapons violation.
One apparent misstep emerged in the trial of a young man charged with fatally shooting another young man in front of dozens of witnesses in daylight last October. He was acquitted after the defense attorney exposed in court that the handgun used in the killing was registered to the uncle of a key state witness -- a fact the prosecution was unaware of.
Circuit Court Judge Thomas P. Smith remarked in court, out of the jury's presence, that it was "fascinating" that the defense knew more about the gun than the prosecution; following a two-day trial, the jury deliberated for just 45 minutes before acquitting the defendant, Oris V. Watts, 19.
Another apparent misstep occurred during the trial of a young man charged with killing a woman in Suitland. He was acquitted of first-degree murder after the lead county homicide detective essentially called a key state witness -- a jailhouse informant -- a liar.
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, said: "Despite these recent bumps in the road, our homicide prosecutors have had a sterling record in 2005." Korionoff said Prince George's prosecutors have obtained convictions or guilty pleas -- sometimes to lesser charges -- in 46 of 55 homicide or manslaughter cases this year.
On Aug. 25, prosecutors secured the conviction of defendant Robert L. Humphries III, 35, on a charge of first-degree murder. A jury found him guilty in the fatal stabbing of his estranged wife in her Glenarden apartment Feb. 17 in front of two witnesses.
The cluster of recent acquittals occurred in little more than a week's span.
On Aug. 23, a jury acquitted Watts, of the District, in the fatal shooting of a young man named Jonathan Foster. Foster was killed Oct. 5 in a strip mall in the 800 block of Southern Avenue, on the District border.
The alleged getaway driver, Donald Bullock, testified for the state that Watts left the car Bullock was driving just before the shooting, then returned right after the attack. Under cross-examination by Assistant Public Defender Janet Hart, Bullock testified that he was repeating what homicide detective Charles Richardson told him in a videotaped interview. Assistant State's Attorney Robin Bright did not call Richardson to testify.
Hart also produced evidence that the weapon, a handgun, was owned by Bullock's uncle. Under cross-examination by Hart, Bullock denied knowing who owned the weapon. Korionoff said Prince George's police requested a federal trace of the gun's ownership, but did not receive a reply by the time the trial began.
On Aug. 25, another jury acquitted Nelson H. Ford, 26, of first-degree murder in the slaying of Wendy Clayborne, 38. She was fatally shot on Feb. 11 outside her Suitland apartment.
In a three-day trial, prosecutors presented evidence that Clayborne made a dying declaration, telling her fiance that someone named "Black" had shot her. The fiance and a girlfriend of Clayborne's picked Ford's picture from a photo array, identifying him as the person they and Clayborne knew as Black, prosecutors said.
In addition, a jailhouse informant, Kenneth Rush, testified for the state that Ford, of Landover, had admitted to the attack when they shared a cell at the Prince George's detention center.
Ford's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Daniel H. Ginsburg, countered each of these witnesses.
A private investigator for the defense obtained a statement from Clayborne's girlfriend, Fione Hackney, in which Hackney said she was hesitant to pick anyone from the photo array homicide detective Meredith Bingley showed her.
Under cross-examination by Ginsburg, Hackney testified that when she balked about picking anyone from the photo array, Bingley told her to choose the photo that most resembled Black. Bingley testified that she made no such suggestion.
As for Rush's claim that Ford confided in him when they shared a cell, a defense witness, Lt. Verjeana McCotter-Jacobs of the county Department of Corrections, testified that jail records showed that Rush and Ford were never in the same cell together. Korionoff said jail records showed Rush and Ford had been in the same housing unit.
Rush is serving a 10-year federal sentence for cocaine trafficking. Under cross-examination by Ginsburg, Rush testified that Bingley told him she would talk to the federal prosecutor on his case about the possibility of filing a motion to reduce his federal sentence, in light of his cooperation in the Clayborne probe. Bingley testified that any defendant who claimed that she had offered a sentence reduction in exchange for testimony would be a liar.
The jury acquitted Ford of first-degree murder but was unable to reach a decision on a charge of second-degree murder and a weapons violation, and the judge declared a mistrial on those counts. State's Attorney's officials said they plan to retry Ford on those charges.
Also on Aug. 25, a third jury deliberated for about three hours before acquitting Donald J. Peters, 40, of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, first-degree assault and a handgun violation for fatally shooting Patrick B. Elliott in Peters's Hyattsville apartment last Oct. 14. (Another Circuit Court jury had acquitted Peters of first-degree murder in May, but failed to reach a verdict on second-degree murder and other charges.)
According to court records and trial testimony, Peters had been arguing with his wife, who called her brother, Elliott, to help her.
A state witness testified that Elliott took a long wooden object, similar to a bat, out of his trunk, swung it in the air, and marched toward the Peters' apartment, said Antoini M. Jones, the defendant's attorney. Peters testified that Elliott came into his apartment brandishing the wooden object, and he shot Elliott to protect himself, Jones said.
On Aug. 31, a fourth jury acquitted Bernard Way Jr., 29, of the District in the September 1998 beating death of Sharonda Sharp, 19. Prosecutors said DNA found on a condom and underneath Sharp's fingernails tied Way to the murder. Way's attorney argued that his client had consensual sex with Sharp but did not harm her.