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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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The jury--three white women, four black women, and five black men--files in. Two white women and a white man sit to the right as alternate jurors. Judge Doory, an avuncular, bowtied man whose voice booms from beneath a D-shaped mustache, cautions them to consider no information that is not presented as evidence during the trial. "Begin with an absolutely blank slate," he says. "Presume that the defendant is innocent. Then, let the evidence take you."

Gibson opens with the obvious. "This was an execution," he says. "The victim, Robert Long, was not meant to survive this encounter."

Baby-faced, trim, and handsome, Gibson has been in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's office since 2006, he says later. In front of the jury he is smooth, methodical, and sure of every detail.

He tells them that police found two .25 caliber shell casings near Long's body, meaning he was shot with a semiautomatic handgun right there; his body was not dumped. Police canvassed the area, and at first couldn't find anyone to say they saw anything. But on May 13, 2008--a month and a half after the crime--Mark Bartlett came forward. He is, in Gibson's words, "an individual who suffers from--or who had suffered from--a large battle with addiction."

Gibson will spend much of the next three days' testimony establishing in minute detail just how, when, and where Long was killed while leaving the question of who did it mainly in the broken hands of Bartlett, his star witness.

"They got the wrong guy," Gering counters. "Three witnesses will say he was at home with his family." She promises to produce a community-service worker who was in the park at the time of the murder, but did not see Smith. "That's because he wasn't there," she says.

Gering suggests that another man killed Long. "José Morales is a man you won't hear about" from police or prosecutors, she concludes. "They didn't follow up on that."

Gibson's first expert witness is Baltimore Police Firearms Examiner Christopher Faber, a bald white guy with a van dyke beard. He establishes his credentials (16 years a Philadelphia cop, trained as a firearms examiner since 1997, testified as an expert in 148 cases), then, he screws up.

Faber says he received the evidence in this case on Nov. 23, 2009, and that he "received a firearm."

In fact, no gun was found in Robert Long's murder. He is talking about the wrong case.

Without giving any indication that anything is amiss, Gibson hands Faber "State's 4."

"Oh, OK," the expert says.

Slowly and methodically, Gibson leads Faber through the evidence, one exhibit at a time. In each case, Faber certifies that what he is seeing is the unaltered evidence he first examined, and then sealed on Dec. 12, 2008: The Winchester .25 shell casings, both from the same gun; the copper-jacketed slugs with six grooves and a right-hand twist. One weighs 49.4 grains, Faber testifies. The other weighs about three tenths of a grain more.

The jury asks why they are different. Faber says one of these bullets was slightly deformed when it hit the inside front of Robert Long's skull. He doesn't say that the bullets could have been off by that much--the weight of a dust mote--when they came out of the box, although they could have. Noting this insignificant difference between the bullets lends precision to the prosecution's case.

In her cross examination, Gering would appear to have an opening. After establishing that he did not, in fact, receive any gun in the Smith case, she could ask Faber if he is careful, to which he would say yes. She could then ask if he knows what case he's here for, or how often he confuses one case with another. She could impress upon the jury that the state is fallible, its arrival at what it calls "certainty" built upon dozens of these fallible decisions by fallible--albeit well-trained, well-meaning--people. Later, she will say that she didn't think the mistake was significant--and that she was more concerned at first about the gun, thinking that Gibson had neglected to tell her about it.

"Nothing further," Gering says.

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