Anatomy of a Murder Trial
In Robert Long's death, "all the pieces fit together." A few are still missing.
A statuesque woman dressed in a snake-skin jacket sits on an oak bench in courtroom 226 of Courthouse West on Calvert Street, waiting for the start of her brother's murder trial. "This is horrible," Cheyenne Ward says. "It's horrible for this man to sit in jail like this. Horrible." It is 10:05 a.m. on Jan. 11. Ward's brother, Demetrius Smith, has been locked up for 17 months. He is accused of shooting Robert Long to death. He faces life in prison, plus 20 years.
"I'm fearful," Ward says. "I can sit here and say somebody did something and look sincere, and I'm lying." And so, she suggests, could a witness against her brother.
A sheriff's deputy brings Demetrius Smith into the court, chains dangling from his legs and arms. He is a short man, wide-shouldered, with a paunch. He has short hair, a trimmed beard, and a round face reminiscent of jazz icon Wynton Marsalis. Wearing a robin's-egg blue striped polo shirt, Smith doesn't look like a killer.
Demetrius Smith became briefly infamous in the summer of 2008 as an example of Baltimore's lax justice system. Charged with Long's March 24, 2008, murder, he was granted bail by Judge Nathan Braverman, who told prosecutors on July 11 of that year that they didn't have enough evidence to keep Smith in jail. Ostensibly working part-time for a temp agency, Smith posted enough cash to make his $350,000 bail. Former Assistant Baltimore City State's Attorney Page Croyder castigated Braverman for allowing "a convicted drug dealer, now charged with first-degree murder, to walk out of jail."
Six weeks later, Smith was arrested again, charged with shooting 56-year-old Clyde Hendricks in the leg during a robbery. He has been in jail ever since.
Smith's case is notable for another reason: The man Smith is accused of killing was already allegedly marked for death by another drug dealer. Thirteen days before he died, Robert Long had agreed to serve as a state's witness against his longtime boss, José Morales, in a series of cases involving tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen construction equipment ("With Impunity," Feature, June 11, 2008). Morales, now awaiting sentencing in federal court in Texas for trying to bring six kilos of cocaine to Baltimore, had threatened Long's life, but Baltimore police never interviewed Morales in their investigation of the murder.
So the trial of Demetrius Smith affords a glimpse of Baltimore's court system, a chaotic world filled with coincidence and contradiction, even in cases such as this one where, as the prosecutor contends, "all the pieces fit together." The pieces of the story the jury will see and hear do fit together, in fact. But as in many cases, they will not get all the pieces.
The key to the state's case is a third drug dealer, a 38-year-old thief and junkie named Mark Bartlett. Now, in this last pretrial hearing, Bartlett is about to be promoted, almost, to "expert" status.
"The jury should have the opportunity to consider the entirety of the case" against Smith, Assistant State's Attorney Richard Gibson argues. He has put Bartlett on the stand, where the bulky, bearded white man, hobbled from a long-ago gunshot wound in the leg and wearing a hoodie and a bandage or splint on one hand, tells the judge a detailed story of his two encounters with Robert Long on the day he was murdered.
Bartlett testifies that Long first knocked on his door at 3 a.m. carrying a plastic bag with more than 100 gel caps full of heroin inside--worth at least $7,000. Bartlett recognized the heroin as the brand he used to sell on behalf of Smith, so he traded it for some crack.
A few hours later, Bartlett says, he saw Long walking with "Michi"--pronounced "MEE-she," aka Demetrius Smith--through the park at the corner of Stricker and Cole streets in Washington Village. He says he then saw Smith shoot Long, he assumed because Long had taken Smith's heroin from an abandoned house on the 300 block of South Parrish Street.
Smith's lawyer, Anne-Marie Gering*, argues that allowing Bartlett to tell the jury that Smith was a heroin dealer will destroy her client's chance at a fair trial. "The jury will think, Oh, he's a drug dealer, drug dealers carry guns,'" she says. "They'll make the jump that they're not supposed to make." To allow this based only on Bartlett's "self-serving" testimony--not on police or other expert witnesses who can say they saw Smith dealing heroin--would be highly prejudicial, Gering argues.
Judge Timothy Doory rules against her. "I don't know how a better basis of knowledge could be alluded to," he says. "This is someone saying I know this because I saw it, I know it because I do it."
With this ruling, Mark Bartlett's testimony gains new force. He will be allowed to tell the jury that Smith is a heroin dealer and that, shortly before his death, Long had Smith's heroin, providing Smith with a motive for murder.
Doory asks if the parties can resolve the case before trial. Gibson offers to accept a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence recommendation of life, suspended all but 30 years.
Gering looks at Smith. "Thirty years," she says, "and when you get out you're on probation."
Smith's voice is firm: "I'm not takin' nothin'."
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