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Melvin Thomas

Other Baltimore City, Maryland exonerations
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On February 27, 2001, a 23-year-old man was shot twice in the face outside of Sally’s Place bar in Baltimore, Maryland. He was able to indicate to police that he had been shot in the alley behind the bar, but little else because of the nature of his wounds—which he survived.

One witness said the gunman was a person who had been sitting next to the victim inside the bar. When the victim went outside to take a cell phone call, the gunman followed. Police found seven expended shell casings and one bullet in the alley where the shooting occurred.

Two witnesses said the gunman was 5 feet 9 inches to 5 feet 11 inches with a medium build, and wearing a gray sweatshirt, jeans, and a bandana on his head. Both witnesses said the gunman had “slanted” eyes. Police recorded the description as “Asian shaped eyes.”

At the hospital, the victim was able to write a description. He said the gunman was a short, dark-skinned Black man with three gold teeth. The victim was 6 feet 1 inch tall and indicated that the gunman came up to his nose. He indicated that another man, Donte Lyle, had handed a gun to the shooter who then shot him. The victim said that the gunman was taller than Lyle, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall.

The Baltimore police developed leads that indicated the gunman possibly had nicknames of “Man” or “Ceelo.”

Officers arrested Lyle and confiscated a shotgun from his home. During questioning, Lyle said the gunman was 22 years old, short, dark-skinned with close-cut hair and a thin build. Lyle denied handing a gun to him and said he did not know the person’s name. Lyle gave the name of another person who was outside of the bar at the time of the shooting. Police then gathered photographs of known associates of this other witness, including a photograph of 20-year-old Melvin Thomas.

Five weeks after the shooting, the police created a photographic lineup that included Thomas’s photograph. The victim picked Thomas out as the gunman who shot him, although Thomas was 6 feet 1 inch tall and light skinned. He also did not have eyes shaped like those the witnesses described or any gold teeth.

Police showed the same photo lineup to the witness at the bar who initially said the gunman was next to the victim inside the bar, but the witness was unable to identify anyone. On April 24, 2001, Thomas was arrested and charged with the shooting. Lyle also was charged.

In December 2001, Thomas and Lyle went to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The victim testified that when he went outside the bar, he saw Donte Lyle, whom he knew as “Junky Vein.” The victim said Lyle handed Thomas a gun. He said that as he turned to go back into the bar, Thomas grabbed his coat and pulled him into the alley. There, Thomas robbed him of his cell phone and $5. He said that Thomas then shot him twice in the face.

A detective who testified about the photographic lineups conceded that Thomas did not have the nicknames of “Man” or “Ceelo” and that he did not fit the initial descriptions of the gunman.

A police firearms examiner testified that one bullet and seven fired shell casings were recovered, and that all were fired from the same gun. The shotgun recovered from Lyle’s home was not linked to the shooting, and the handgun used to shoot the victim was not found.

Midway through the trial, Lyle pled guilty. He never said—during his initial interview with police or during his sentencing—that Thomas was involved in the crime.

Thomas testified and denied being involved in the shooting. He said that while he knew Lyle, he had never been to Sally’s Place. He also said that he never had gold teeth and always had long hair, unlike the short hair that witnesses attributed to the gunman.

On December 6, 2001, the jury convicted Thomas of first-degree attempted murder, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and robbery with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

In July 2003, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld his convictions. Over the years, Thomas filed motions for new trial and two federal petitions for a writ of habeas corpus. All were unsuccessful.

In 2018, Booth Ripke, an attorney with the law firm of Nathans & Biddle LLP, was representing Thomas when the victim came forward and admitted he made a mistake. The victim said that at some point after the trial was over, he was at the Patapsco Flea Market in Baltimore when he locked eyes with a man whom he realized was the person who shot him. In a statement, the victim said, “I looked at him and I got this weird feeling. And I was like—that’s the guy that shot me right there.” The victim said he was afraid and immediately left the flea market. He said that same fear kept him from coming forward.

In the spring of 2019, Ripke reached out to the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP). MAIP then arranged a meeting with the Conviction Integrity Program (CIP), which is a part of the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. In June 2019, Booth, accompanied by MAIP Legal Director Frances Walters and Baltimore City Paralegal/Investigator Emily Pate, presented the case to the CIU.

The CIP interviewed the victim, who again said he was mistaken in his identification of Thomas. He said that when he saw the real gunman at the flea market, his “heart dropped.”

The CIP also interviewed a woman who said that after Thomas was arrested, he was released on bail. She said she accompanied him to court for a hearing on the case and they sat together in the back of the courtroom waiting for the case to be called. When the case was called, she and Thomas stood up and so did the man sitting next to them—who turned out to be the victim. The woman said that while they were waiting, Thomas and the victim were chatting, each unaware of who the other was. The woman also said that not only did Thomas not have any gold teeth, but that he had long hair—not short hair as the gunman was described.

The CIP also interviewed a witness who said that the shooter was a person nicknamed “Man”—as had been said at the time.

On December 14, 2020, Ripke and Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the CIU, filed a joint motion for a writ of actual innocence. The prosecution concluded that the victim’s recantation of his identification of Thomas was reliable.

The motion said, “Following a thorough and independent legal investigation of this entire case over the last 18 months, the State has concluded that Mr. Thomas is factually innocent and he did not commit this crime for which he was convicted.”

At a hearing on December 15, 2020, Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles Peters granted the motion to vacate Thomas’s convictions. “This particular, newly-discovered evidence creates a substantial or significant possibility (of) a different result at trial,” the judge said.

Lipscomb then dismissed the case against Thomas, who was immediately released, 19 years after his conviction.

“I wish you a happy and healthy holiday,” Lipscomb said.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/4/2021
Last Updated: 1/4/2021
State:Maryland
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2001
Convicted:2001
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:65 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No