A man who spent five years in prison for a murder and a shooting he didn’t do cleared his name and confronted his prosecutor today in Judge Barry Williams’ Baltimore City Circuit courtroom.
“He couldn’t even look me in the face and tell me ‘sorry,’” Demetrius Smith told Williams, while looking at Richard Gibson, a former city prosecutor now running for state’s attorney in Howard County.
Williams gently admonished Smith to address him, not Gibson.
In a 2010 jury trial, Gibson convicted Smith of the 2008 killing of Robert Long, and later pried a guilty plea out of him in the shooting of Clyde Hendricks in a robbery that occurred that same year.
Smith was exonerated of the murder. (Troy Lucas is scheduled tomorrow to be sentenced for the murder in federal court. He faces life in prison.)
But Smith’s guilty plea in the shooting continued to haunted him.
“I go for a good job, this come up,” he told the judge. “I gotta sit down and explain all this. They don’t wanna hear that. They don’t wanna hear that.”
Today, Smith’s nine-year quest to clear the shooting conviction from his record came to an end.
Over Gibson’s objection, Williams imposed probation before judgment, clearing Smith’s felony and opening the way for the shooting charge to be purged from his record.
Smith’s experience was not only harrowing for him but illustrative for the public – ProPublica used it to explain the pressure put on even innocent defendants to take plea bargains.
The Smith case also opens a window on a dark corner of Baltimore police culture, where informants sometimes trade lies for freedom, and cops – wittingly or not – protect killers while railroading the innocent.
His ordeal began on July 8, 2008.
Mark Bartlett, a local addict, and Michelle McVicker, also addicted and working as a prostitute, claimed they saw Smith walk Long into Traci Atkins Park in Southwest Baltimore and shoot him twice in the head.
ProPublica used Smith’s case to illustrate the pressure put on even innocent defendants to take plea bargains.
On that same day, Jose Morales was captured in Baltimore County after missing court dates. Morales had been Long’s boss, for years directing Long to steal heavy equipment and scaffolding and to take the rap when Morales was caught with the goods.
Morales had served very little time by 2008, despite being part of a major drug crew, multiple arsons, countless thefts, ongoing contract fraud and having been caught paying off a city cop previously.
But Long had turned state’s evidence in several theft cases, and his lawyer, Alex Leikus, let Morales’s lawyer, Stanley Needleman, knew it. So Morales, facing up to 30 years in prison, paid Lucas $20,000 to kill Long.
Three hours after Long’s March 24, 2008 murder, members of the Regional Auto Theft Team, who had been monitoring Morales for many years, turned over a thick file to Baltimore City homicide detectives.
In it were all the players, all the contacts, and all the motive they’d need to make the case.
The homicide detectives, Steve Hohman and Charles Bealefeld, essentially ignored it.
Witness Allegedly Threatened
Months later, guided in part by a Mount Clare fixture who called herself a “neighborhood watch,” they homed in on Smith.
Smith made bail after his initial arrest, prompting howls of outrage from a former prosecutor who had taken to blogging. So when Hendricks was robbed and shot a few weeks later, Bealefeld was there.
Hendricks lived across the street from Smith. They knew each other. But Hendricks identified Smith in a lineup, never letting on he knew his assailant.
The second witness in that case, also a prostitute, has since recanted, saying Bealefeld threatened her with arrest if she didn’t finger Smith.
Bealefeld, who is the brother of then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld, later retired from the city force under a cloud, having allegedly lied to internal affairs investigators looking into a racial incident. He is a homicide detective in the Annapolis Police Department.
Hohman was promoted to lieutenant and now heads the city’s sex crimes division.
Baltimore Police did not respond to an email from The Brew asking how they handled the detectives’ errors.
The department has never addressed the issues raised by Smith’s cases, despite multiple requests to do so over almost a decade.
Gibson took Hohman and Bealefeld’s case to trial and won, mainly by omitting inconvenient facts.
Federal law enforcement re-investigated Long’s murder. They prosecuted Morales for drugs, Needleman for tax evasion, and then convicted Morales of the murder-for-hire. He is serving life in prison.
Lucas, imprisoned for years on a burglary conviction, was tried only last summer for the murder.
Smith’s Unusual Deal
Free since 2013, Smith has struggled to put his life back together.
“This whole situation is a mess,” he told Williams. “They should have told me they were sorry from the beginning, when they knew they was wrong.”
Even last summer, when Smith moved to have his sentence modified, Gibson stood in the way, telling Judge Williams that he wouldn’t consent to it.
That’s the way plea bargains usually work: you agree to the sentence, and you can’t change it later unless the prosecutor OKs it.
But Smith’s deal was unusual. He had agreed to plead guilty to shooting Hendricks, but only if – should his murder conviction later be overturned – he would be allowed to modify that plea also and without Gibson’s permission.
Gibson had forgotten that aspect of the deal, and so had Williams. Only when ProPublica pointed it out did Gibson file a correction with the court, making way for today’s hearing.
“He knows he’s wrong”
During the hearing, Gibson argued that the murder case and the shooting case were separate. He told the judge that they were handled by different police officers “based on my recollection.”
Williams exploded. “Your recollection? Do you know for a fact, or do you not?”
Gibson allowed that he did not know for a fact. “Your honor, if I may—”
“—NO YOU MAY NOT!” Williams replied, before granting Smith’s request to have his sentence for the shooting modified to a probation before judgment.
Since Smith has already served his probation, the PBJ allows for the case to be expunged.
Smith has worked as a landscaper since his release. He has not violated his probation. He moved out of Mt. Clare and now lives on the West Side.
After the hearing, he told assembled reporters he was happier than when he went into court. He is happy, he said, that he gets to know his daughter, who was five when he was jailed, and in puberty when he got out.
He says he’s glad he got to confront Gibson, but, “I didn’t say what I wanted to say. He knows he’s wrong. He should be a man and come to me.”
By not apologizing, Smith said, the prosecutor was deliberately harming him.
His lawyer, Barry Pollack, said he believed the prosecutor, like most prosecutors, to be “constitutionally and institutionally incapable” of admitting error.
“He’s human,” Smith said. “He makes mistakes.”