After murder exoneration, freed man wonders how case went wrong

Demetrius Smith spent five years locked up, convicted in the death of a man he did not kill.

(Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun Photo)

By Ian Duncan | The Baltimore Sun

D

emetrius Smith knew a man had been murdered in his Southwest Baltimore neighborhood. But that’s all he knew — until two police trucks pulled up on a warm summer morning and whisked him to the homicide division at police headquarters.

Detectives had rounded up two people who said they saw Smith shoot 36-year-old Robert Long to death near a set of Southwest Baltimore train tracks in March 2008.

“I thought it was a joke,” Smith said, recalling the moment when he read the brief statement of charges that had been slipped under his door at Central Booking.

Five years would pass before Smith walked free, exonerated by a federal investigation that began with an old lead.

When he died, Long was an informant in a Baltimore police investigation of a construction materials theft scheme. City homicide detectives had disregarded that connection, and Smith still can’t understand why authorities were so quick to point the finger at him.

“I sat in there five years, back and forth ₀ for court in chains, shackles,” Smith, 30, said in his first interview since being set free. “All of that for nothing.”

Wrongful murder convictions are rare, but each one raises questions about the legal safeguards in place to protect innocent people. At least 15 convicted killers have been exonerated in Maryland over the past 20 years.

Investigative documents from Smith’s case, reviewed by The Baltimore Sun, show how a few missteps and wrong turns can lead to an unjust outcome: Detectives following one lead fail to account for another. Witnesses lie in court. Prosecutors sell jurors on a bad case.

“When you study these exonerations, it's really humbling to see how many ways people err,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who studies wrongful convictions.

Long’s mother, Grace Bouvier, sat through the trial, and believed Smith when he looked her in the eye and said he was innocent. Nobody who knew Long would have believed the story laid out by authorities in court, she said.

“I blame the police department and I'm pretty sure [Smith and his family] do too,” Bouvier said.

City police and prosecutors defend their handling of the case, arguing that they never anticipated what a federal investigation would turn up.

“Officers follow a strict set of protocols when investigating homicides in conjunction with other agencies and we're confident that's what happened in this case,” said J. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore police spokesman. “After a state trial, clearly the federal government found that facts had changed.”

From court documents

Robert Long

Even before he died, Long was on the radar of the police department’s radar as a defendant and potential witness in a series of thefts from construction sites. In the weeks before his murder, Long had been interviewed by a special police task force that investigates thefts. He told detectives what he knew about Jose Morales, his boss and co-defendant.

Officers told Long to keep his cooperation quiet, but he told a few friends and word drifted back to Morales. Long had also called his mother in Texas and said he was working with the police.

“I told him, ‘Son, be careful, he'll kill you,’’” Bouvier recalled. Long told her he’d never do it. “He won't kill you but he'll have somebody else do it,” she warned.

Long was found behind Traci Atkins Park on the day after Easter with two .25-caliber bullet wounds to his head, along with heroin and cocaine in his system. Years later, the remote location is no less gritty. A rail car stands rusting on a set of tracks that lead nowhere; nearby is a pile of discarded railroad ties.

Baltimore homicide detectives Steve Hohman and Charles Bealefeld arrived at that scene in 2008 and set to work in a morning chill.

Bouvier rushed to Baltimore and quickly sat down with Hohman to share her suspicions about Morales. Hohman also learned that a man who worked with Morales owned a .25-caliber gun and that the weapon had gone missing after the murder.

VIDEO: Long implicates his boss Morales in a series of construction materials theft cases.

The detective convinced a judge to issue a court order for Morales’ phone records. He later told investigators he also spoke to the man who owned the gun, and according to records, formally interviewed the man’s brother. They both admitted to being with Long the night before he died. But Hohman did not approach Morales, according to police files, and he later said he never got the phone data.

Within a few weeks, police had departed from that trail and began looking toward Smith.

Investigators got a tip from someone described in police records as a “block watcher,” and Hohman put out a bulletin on May 8 asking officers to keep a look out for Mark Bartlett, a convicted thief who was said to know something about the slaying.

Bartlett was arrested on a probation violation charge within two weeks and brought to Hohman. He said he had witnessed the killing, and identified Smith as the shooter. A week later, police tracked down an admitted drug addict named Michelle McVicker, according to the investigative file.

It is not clear how McVicker surfaced — Hohman said at Smith’s trial that she was pointed out by a confidential source; she claimed Hohman told her she was visible in footage from a nearby surveillance camera.

Whatever the case, her story matched up with Bartlett’s. Smith was arrested on July 10 and interviewed by Hohman in a room at police headquarters.

Smith recalled, “He kept telling me, ‘Help yourself out,’ and I'm like, ‘What do you mean help myself out? Help myself out with what?’”

Hohman gave nothing away, Smith said, and he did not find out about the charges against him until he received a copy of the arrest warrant in jail that day.

In his closing arguments at Smith’s 2010 murder trial, Assistant State’s Attorney Richard Gibson made a compelling case. Bartlett and McVicker described the murder in a way that seemed to align with the location of Long’s body and the number of shell casings found at the scene.

Bartlett had testified that Long had stolen a stash of heroin Smith had been hiding in a vacant house. Smith has a drug conviction from 2004, but prosecutors provided no other evidence that he was a dealer at the time of Long’s murder, according to court records.

Still, Gibson told jurors in his closing argument: “This was done to send a message, and the defendant’s message was simple: ‘If you steal from me, if you mess with my business, I will kill you. You will die.’”

Gibson also said that police had been thorough in their investigation.

“All the pieces fit together,” he said. “No stone was left unturned.”

Smith’s lawyer, Anne-Marie Gering, attacked the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses in her closing argument and pushed the Morales angle.

“The fact two weeks, just two weeks, before Robert Long dies he agreed to testify … is significant,” Gering said in court. “Of course Jose Morales is going to be upset.”

But 12 twelve Baltimore jurors returned a guilty verdict after three hours of deliberation. Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory sentenced Smith to life plus 18 years.

(Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun Photo)

Long’s family was unconvinced by the story they had seen play out in court.

“Smith stood right up in the courtroom when he was sentenced and said, ‘Miss, I did not know Robert, I did not kill your son,’” Bouvier said recently. “I believed him.”

Eventually, so did the U.S. attorney’s office.

“It's not the fault of the state prosecutor; they had witnesses but the witnesses were lying,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said. “Smith had nothing at all to do with this crime.”

Rarah/Baltimore City Paper photo obtained from court documents

Jose Morales

Rosenstein said he had become interested in Morales through an article in the Baltimore City Paper. Headlined “With Impunity” it described a “14-year adult criminal career of unsafe construction, violations of building and zoning codes, theft, assault, drug dealing, and fire setting.”

So when Morales was arrested at a small Texas airport near the Mexican border with six kilograms of cocaine and thousands of dollars — and implicated his attorney, Stanley Needleman, in Long’s murder — Rosenstein sent two prosecutors from his office.

The U.S. attorney’s office shared its concerns about the Smith case with state prosecutors back in Maryland on April 15. 2011. Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office, said prosecutors began reviewing the evidence that spring.

Rarah/Baltimore City Paper photo obtained from court documents

Stanley Needleman

Court records show the office was initially reluctant, but the Morales angle got stronger when Needleman came under suspicion of tax evasion and agreed to cooperate with authorities.

In early 2011, federal and state authorities began working together to review the case against Smith.

By that time, Bartlett was dead, after collapsing at home, but on April 27, 2011, investigators quizzed McVicker at the U.S. Courthouse in Greenbelt. She recanted her story and said Hohman dropped hints such as like the race of the suspect and the victim and details about the scene, according to notes included in the investigative file.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also came and interviewed Smith at the Cumberland prison where he was being held.

He had no inkling they were working to exonerate him. His case was on appeal and Smith said he was worried they were looking for new evidence to keep him locked up.

“I was ready to get up and leave,” Smith said. “The way I was feeling, — what was you questioning me for? I got life plus 18.”

Eventually the state’s attorney’s office was convinced and in August 2012 filed to reopen Smith’s case.

“When all the evidence was considered we reached the decision to dismiss the case,” Cheshire said. “Law enforcement does not have the benefit of hindsight or any future evidence, and in this case a jury convicted the defendant based on the evidence presented.”

Legal scholars who study wrongful convictions say such cases often follow familiar patterns.

Detectives and prosecutors often suffer from “confirmation bias” in which they regard information that supports a theory more highly than details that contradict it, said Colin Starger, a University of Baltimore Law School professor and former Innocence Project attorney. That national organization uses DNA evidence and other means to free people who are wrongfully convicted.

Such bias can subconsciously affect witnesses when they pick out people in lineups. McVicker, for example, said that she made one choice but Hohman asked whether she was sure and she changed her mind.

“That is the single most common thing that you see, a bad eyewitness identification,” Starger said.

Morales was indicted in the slaying, and at his trial this September, prosecutors laid out how he coordinated with two brothers to have Long killed. After a wild night bingeing on cocaine and heroin, authorities said, one of the brothers led Long onto the tracks by Traci Atkins Park and fired the two fatal shots.

Morales was convicted and faces a mandatory life sentence.

Key to the federal case were the records of Morales’ calls that night and morning; authorities said they showed he had been in close contact with the gunman. Hohman told a Baltimore detective who was working with federal investigators he did not recall those records ever being turned over to him.

In the same interview, included in the investigative file, Hohman said he did not interview Morales because he did not have enough to information to charge him.

“I went where the evidence took me,” Hohman said at the end of the 25-minute interview, according to the notes.

Baltimore police declined to make Hohman available for an interview, but Bealefeld — who said he left the case after a few days — said investigators acted in good faith, despite the outcome.

“I'm glad for [Smith] that he's not sitting in jail for a long time for something he didn't do,” said Bealefeld, who now works for Annapolis police.

Bouvier, who lives in Texas City, Texas., plans to testify at Morales’ December sentencing and hopes Morales will help convict the man who pulled the trigger.

““If he had any decency left in him, he should give up the shooters,” Bouvier said. “He should let my family and our son rest in peace.”

At Morales’ trial, prosecutors named the owner of the missing .25-caliber handgun as the shooter, but he has not been charged.

Smith was released from prison in May — almost five years to the day after becoming a murder suspect.

Now he’s trying to get back to work. That’s not easy with a dropped murder charge still on his record, but the Living Classrooms Foundation has arranged for him to do demolition and he has work setting up events at a museum.

He’s also trying get to know his two daughters, who were young children when he went to prison but are now heading into their teenage years.

Smith says the ordeal destroyed his faith in the criminal justice system. But despite everything that happened to him, he never gave up.

“I always kept hope,” Smith said. “Eventually you know what you do in the dark comes into the light.”

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From wrongful conviction to release

In 2008, Demetrius Smith was arrested for a Southwest Baltimore murder he did not commit. Five years passed before he would walk free.

  • Robert Long is found dead in March 2008, days after being questioned in a series of thefts from construction sites.
  • Long's mother shares concerns with police about his boss Jose Morales.
  • Mark Bartlett and Michelle McVicker identify Smith as Long's killer.
  • Smith is convicted of murder in January 2010.
  • In April 2011, Baltimore prosecutors began reviewing Smith's case, prompted by Morales' August 2008 arrest at a South Texas airport.
  • McVicker recants her story about Smith's involvement. Needleman corroborates Morales' involvement in Long's murder.
  • In August 2012, prosecutors file to reopen Smith's case.
  • The next month, Morales is charged with hiring a man to kill Long.
  • Smith is set free in May 2013.
  • Morales is convicted of setting up Long's murder.