On December 2, 1967, a man armed with a pistol robbed Giles Food Market in Baltimore City, Maryland. The gunman fatally shot the night manager, 56-year-old Robert Brewer, then emptied the cash registers and fled on foot. Police officer William West, alerted to the crime by a witness, chased the suspect on foot and fired several gunshots at him, but the robber escaped.
At the time, a wave of robberies and shootings in taverns and stores by black men in Baltimore generated a paroxysm of racial tension in the community and police were conducting mass lineups. Dozens of people—victims and witnesses—were being brought to police stations to view numerous lineups.
On December 12, 1967, 20-year-old Walter Lomax, who had a record for car theft, assault and robbery, came to the police station because he believed there was a warrant out for his arrest. He was mistaken—the warrant was for his brother for non-payment of child support. Nonetheless, Lomax was put into several lineups and ultimately charged with the murder of Brewer after three witnesses identified him. Based on other witness identifications, Lomax was also charged with two other unrelated murders—that of 46-year-old Melvin Saunders on November 27, 1967, and of 45-year-old Jesse L. Atkinson at a tavern just hours before Brewer was killed.
Lomax went on trial for the murder of Brewer in September 1968 in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Five witnesses—all of whom were white—identified Lomax, who is black. Three were inside the store and two were outside in a car. Two store clerks, however, were unable to identify Lomax. No physical or forensic evidence tied Lomax to the crime.
Lomax’s defense attorney introduced evidence that at the time of the crime, Lomax had a cast on his right hand—the hand that the witnesses said the gunman used to shoot Brewer. None of the witnesses recalled anything unusual about the gunman’s right hand.
On September 19, 1968, Lomax was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery and attempted armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison. The charges for the other two murders were then dismissed.
In November 1969, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence. More than 15 years later, in 1985, Lomax filed a state petition for a new trial, but the petition was dismissed without a hearing and a request to appeal the dismissal was denied.
In 1995, Lomax, without a lawyer, filed another state petition for a new trial and that was denied in 1996. His request to appeal was rejected.
Not long after, Centurion Ministries, a non-profit organization that investigates wrongful convictions, took up Lomax’s case. In 2006, Lomax, now represented by lawyers, filed a motion to reopen his case and filed a new motion to modify his sentence. The motion also presented new evidence that significantly expanded on the minimal evidence that Lomax’s lawyer had presented at his trial relating to the cast on Lomax’s hand.
The motion outlined how, on November 25, 1967, Lomax was chaperoning his sister at a Thanksgiving Day dance and was attacked by a group of youths outside the dance. Lomax was stabbed in his right hand so hard that the knife fractured a bone. He was kicked repeatedly and suffered bruised ribs and had difficulty walking for the next two weeks.
On December 1, 1967, about 10 hours before the shooting, Lomax had been treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s clinic where a 15-layer plastic splint was placed on his right hand and arm.
In December 2006, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Gale Rasin found that Lomax’s trial attorney had provided a constitutionally ineffective defense by failing to present evidence on how the injury occurred and failing to call two police officers as witnesses who could have said they obtained descriptions of the gunman that were at odds with the way Lomax looked. Moreover, the lawyer failed to call a police officer who could have testified that he chased the suspect and that the suspect outran him—a feat that Lomax would have been unable to accomplish due to his injuries from the attack outside the dance.
The judge noted that while in prison, Lomax had earned a General Equivalency Degree and an Associate Degree from Essex Community College and had taken creative writing courses at Towson University. While in prison, Lomax was a tutor to other inmates and was editor of a prison newsletter.
On December 13, 2006, Judge Rasin resentenced Lomax to time served and he was released. However, his convictions remained intact.
Lomax then set about focusing his life on helping other inmates and became the head of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, an organization which helps inmates assimilate into society upon their release.
In 2009, a law went into effect in Maryland that allowed defendants who contended they had new evidence of innocence to request court hearings. In 2012, newly-elected Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein established a Conviction Integrity Unit to investigate cases of defendants who claimed they were wrongfully convicted.
Lomax’s attorneys requested that the unit re-examine Lomax’s case. Their investigation determined that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence to Lomax’s trial attorney that could have helped show he was innocent. The prosecution joined a defense motion that the conviction should be vacated, stating: “Each of these items constitutes newly discovered evidence” that “creates a substantial or significant possibility” that had Lomax’s lawyer had the evidence, Lomax would have been acquitted.
The evidence included a composite sketch that was drawn from witnesses’ descriptions as well as a police report that documented the sketch, which could have been used to cross-examine the five eyewitnesses.
The documents also included a police report showing that a customer at the store who looked at numerous mug shots selected a different person whom he said looked like the gunman. Neither the report nor the photos were provided to Lomax’s lawyer.
Another police report that was not disclosed contained notes from an interview with a woman who was a few blocks from the robbery, heard gunshots and shortly thereafter saw a man emerge from an alley carrying a bag in one hand and his other hand was in his coat pocket. The woman’s description of the man was “significantly different” than Lomax’s appearance.
In 2014, Lomax’s lawyers filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence. On March 21, 2014, the prosecution filed a response saying that it concurred with the defense motion. On April 2, 2014, Lomax’s convictions were vacated and the prosecution dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley