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Anatomy of a Murder Trial

In Robert Long's death, "all the pieces fit together." A few are still missing.

Photographs By Michelle Gienow
Robert Long's daughter Hannah holds his picture

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 2/24/2010

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During the next three days of testimony, arrayed on two rows of oak benches on the left-hand side of the courtroom, will sit a shifting crew of Smith's supporters, relatives, and friends. Demetrius' father, George Smith, scoffs at Bartlett's tale: "You can't let a junkie know where you got $7,000 worth of drugs!"

In George's telling, this whole case comes down to Demetrius' mirthful personality--and Bartlett's spite. George contends that in the spring of 2008, a short time after Long's murder, Bartlett crossed another drug dealer in the neighborhood. So Bartlett ended up getting beat up with a golf club. "And Demetrius laughed," Smith says. "So he"--Bartlett--"got bitter" and told the cops Demetrius did the murder.

"I've been arrested before," George Smith adds. "I've been incarcerated before. I lived in the law library." He says he has used his knowledge of the law, combined with his street knowledge, to try to advise his son's lawyer. But Gering has not been responsive, or aggressive, enough for George. "The judge is weighing everything from a logical standpoint, that's how it is," George says. "But it's not how the streets actually is."

Gering, a felony trial supervisor with 19 years experience in the Office of Public Defender, appears slow to jump on mistakes her opponent makes, and seems halfhearted in her effort to construct a scenario in which José Morales was the real killer. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the 20 or 30 cases she juggles, in addition to supervising nine people. But she will also forego some lines of questioning to avoid potentially damaging testimony about her client, she will later say. And she will learn facts after the trial that could be significant. "I always knew, and I still know, there's more to the story, and I'm not getting it all," Gering will say after the verdict.

Demetrius Smith is Gering's client in two cases: this one, and the one in which he's accused of shooting Clyde Hendricks. George Smith says that Hendricks' parents told him that their son told them Demetrius wasn't the shooter, and that Hendricks didn't return to court. By Smith's calculus, this means his son is innocent.

"A lot of times when they perjure themselves," George Smith says, "they're afraid to go back to court. That's what's dangerous."

He is asked if it isn't possible that Hendricks was intimidated into changing his story.

"It leaves the person who perjured themselves in a no-win situation," George Smith explains, ignoring the question. "So he has to stay away. Justice says you're innocent until proven guilty. How can you be proven guilty if the state presses a witness to perjure himself? That's a strange situation."

He lets the implications of such chicanery hang in the air for a moment. The thick ring on his left pinky--real diamonds?--glints under the fluorescent light. (Prosecuting attorney Gibson says that Hendricks never missed a court date.)

"By no means am I saying that Demetrius is an angel," Smith concludes. "But Demetrius is not a murderer."

Robert Long was no angel either, his family says, but he was a hardworking man. His daughter Hannah, now 3 years old, "loved to rub his bald head," according to her mother, Robin Wolford.

"Robert was like a father to my kids," says Long's sister Carol Shiflett. "He was a good kid. He had a lot of anger issues."

Long was 15 or 16 when his father, a painter at Varsity Auto Repair in Catonsville, died at age 43 from a heart attack. "They hunted together, fished together," says Long's mother Grace Bouvier, who now lives in Texas. "His father never had an enemy in his life. Rob had his father's personality."

Shiflett and Bouvier, with Wolford and her other daughter, are sitting on the bench behind the prosecutor, a few feet from Smith's family. The two groups--mostly black men on Smith's side, all white women on Long's--avoid eye contact throughout the trial.

Though he could barely read, Long sometimes earned as much as $2,000 per week working 15-hour days for Morales, the women say. At least before his daughter was born, they acknowledge, Long spent much of his money "partying."

"When he got involved with dope--actually crack--there was no bringing him back," Bouvier says quietly. "When he turned state's evidence, I wanted him to come to Texas. I had heard José said he would kill him," Bouvier, who estimates she has spent $1,500 on plane tickets to travel to Smith's court dates, says. "He said, 'Mom, José is not going to kill me.' He said, 'Mom, I'm a soldier.'"

Just how or why Robert Long came into possession of Michi Smith's $7,000 heroin stash early that Easter Monday morning--if that is indeed what happened--is unknown. "Word on the street was that his friend set him up," Shiflett says of her brother. A man she knows as "Junior" called, and another man, Harry White, picked Long up from Shiflett's house at about 11 p.m. that night to go party, but later said he saw Long get into someone else's car, according to Shiflett.

Robert Long was dead 11 hours later.

Shiflett says police tracked a telephone White had bought her brother to a black male who admitted he took it from Long's body--an allegation that Gering will say she didn't hear about until nearly a month after the trial ends.

Neither Junior nor White will testify at Smith's trial, nor will Troy Lucas, a man with a long criminal history with whom witnesses saw Long on the morning of his murder.

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