On April 30, 1994, in East Baltimore, Maryland, 22-year-old Oscar Lewis dropped off his best friend, Dante Lamont Todd, and then stopped at a traffic light. While he was waiting for the light to turn green, two men with guns ran up and fired 13 shots, killing Lewis. The gunmen then fled on foot.
Police discovered that shell casings collected at the murder scene matched casings recovering from a shooting and robbery that occurred six days earlier at an East Baltimore nightclub. About two weeks later, when police approached a group of men in a nearby park, the men fled, but left behind a MAC-11 machine pistol. Tests on the gun matched it to the casings found at the nightclub robbery/shooting and the scene of Lewis’ murder.
By that time, a West Baltimore man, Darren Warren, had been charged in the shooting/robbery. In a police interview, he said he was involved in the shooting/robbery along with three other people, including 23-year-old Antoine Pettiford. Warren said the MAC-11 belonged to Pettiford.
Police assembled a photographic lineup containing a picture of Pettiford, who had a lengthy criminal record for using and selling narcotics. Warren identified him, as did two witnesses who were at the scene of the murder. A witness to the robbery/shooting said Pettiford resembled the gunman who carried a MAC-11.
Pettiford was arrested on August 30, 1994 and charged with first
degree murder for shooting Lewis.
He went on trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court in June 1995. The case against him was thin. The MAC-11 had been mistakenly destroyed by the police department. Rory Harris, one of the witnesses to the murder who had previously identified Pettiford, now testified that Pettiford was too short to be one of the two killers.
Warren, the man who had initially implicated Pettiford, testified that he had lied about Pettiford being involved in the robbery/shooting. He said that he had told police what they wanted to hear.
Tracy Jordan, the other eyewitness who had selected Pettiford’s photograph as one of the men running from the murder scene, hedged at trial, saying Pettiford did not appear to be the same man she saw.
The prosecution summoned Lois Ward, Tracy Jordan’s older sister. Ward, a convicted thief, had not come forward until 11 months after the murder because, she said, she had been afraid to talk to the police. She told the jury that she saw the shooting and that Pettiford was one of the two men who fled from the scene.
Pettiford’s relatives testified that he was attending a birthday party for an older brother at the time Lewis was gunned down.
On June 25, 1995, the jury convicted Pettiford of first-degree murder.
Tracy Jordan came to Pettiford’s sentencing and told the judge that she had become certain that Pettiford was not one of the gunmen. The judge rejected her testimony and sentenced Pettiford to life in prison.
That evening, Lewis’s friend, Dante Lamont Todd, saw a news report about the sentencing. Todd was puzzled because the day after Lewis was killed, he gave police details about the motive for the killing. Todd had told police that a drug ring had given him $4,500 to hold and that the money had been stolen from a hiding place in his grandmother’s basement. Todd told police that he had later been in shootout with the drug ring leader, a man he knew as “Meat.” Todd believed Lewis was shot in retaliation for the loss of the money and for the shootout.
But this information was never turned over to Pettiford’s trial attorney.
During a 1996 narcotics trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, some of these details came to light. The case began as an investigation of a drug ring operating between New York City and Baltimore, but two members of the ring pled guilty and testified against their boss, Demetrius Bernard Smith, who was known as “Meat.”
These witnesses said that Smith wanted Todd killed because he believed Todd had stolen the $4,500 and because of an incident when Todd had fired a gun at Smith’s car from a car that Lewis was driving. The witnesses testified that on the night Lewis was killed, Smith bragged that he had caught up to Lewis as he was stopped at a traffic light and two other members of the ring jumped out and shot him.
Smith pled guilty and then had his attorney tell federal prosecutors that Pettiford was innocent. But he refused to cooperate further or speak to federal agents.
Federal prosecutors relayed the information to Nancy Pollack, who had prosecuted Pettiford. She did not believe Smith and did not act on the information
At Smith’s sentencing, a federal prosecutor expressed doubt that Pettiford was guilty and requested a harsh sentence for Smith because he refused to identify the men who killed Lewis. The prosecutor said none of the government witnesses—members of the drug ring—knew of Pettiford.
“There may be a man who is doing time in this case who shouldn’t be doing time,” the prosecutor said. “If Antoine Pettiford is innocent, then there are two shooters out there who need to be brought to justice.” The prosecutor said he believed one of the gunmen was Duraye “Money” Cole, a member of the drug ring.
Smith was sentenced to 41 years in prison, but the judge gave him a year to cooperate on the Lewis murder in exchange for a shorter sentence.
Pettiford’s family hired a new lawyer who used a public records request to obtain Pettiford’s homicide file from the Baltimore police department. In the file, the lawyer found numerous reports that the prosecution had not turned over to Pettiford’s trial attorney. These included a report saying that Todd wanted to talk to detectives about the murder as well as a police bulletin issued three days after the murder listing a man known as “Meat” as a suspect.
The file also contained a statement from Rory Harris, one of the witnesses who testified at Pettiford’s trial that Pettiford was too short to be one of the gunmen. Harris said he saw Duraye Cole and another man, both with guns, sitting in a car moments before Lewis was shot. Also in the file was a police report written three months after the murder that named Cole as a suspect.
At the request of Pettiford’s lawyer, federal prosecutors unsealed the grand jury testimony of another witness in the drug ring case, who had not testified at trial because Smith had pled guilty. That witness said that Smith and three others, including Cole, returned to Smith’s girlfriend’s house not long after the shooting and that Smith was gloating about how Lewis had been shot so many times, his body was “dancing inside of the car.”
In May 1998, at a hearing on a motion for a new trial, the lead detective admitted that he had taken a detailed statement from Todd, but had withheld it from the case file. However, he said he had given the statement to Pollack, the prosecutor. The judge then ordered Pollack removed from the case and the hearing was postponed.
On August 21, 1998 the prosecution agreed that exculpatory evidence had not been disclosed to the defense and agreed to vacate Pettiford’s first-degree murder conviction. Pettiford then pled no contest to a charge of manslaughter and he was released.
In July 1999, the Baltimore Sun newspaper disclosed that their review of the homicide file turned up even more evidence that had not been disclosed. Todd had provided an address for Smith, given police the names of three other men he believed were involved in the shooting, and provided information to police for months after the murder.
Based on this disclosure, Pettiford’s attorney filed a motion seeking dismissal of the manslaughter charge. In May, 2000, the motion was granted and the no contest plea was vacated. On June 13, 2000, the prosecution dismissed the charge.
– Maurice Possley