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Willie Billinger

Other Maryland exonerations
On March 14, 2017, police were summoned to a first-floor apartment at 2412 St. Paul Street in Baltimore, Maryland after residents complained of a foul odor. Inside, officers found the bodies of 53-year-old Erlene “Smiley” Thomas and 53-year-old Howard “Mike” Martin. Both had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death. Thomas was naked.

The lead detective, Julian Min, interviewed numerous people who lived in the three-story building as well as people who knew the victims and frequented their apartment, which was a place where people gathered to use drugs.

On March 29, 2017, 39-year-old Willie “Fuman” Billinger was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and carrying a dangerous weapon.

In July 2018, Billinger went to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The prosecution’s primary witness was Tyrone Rice, who testified that several days before the bodies were found, he was in the apartment with the victims and others, including Billinger.

Rice testified that Billinger became upset because he thought no one was listening as he talked about the hit and run death of his son. And, Rice said, Billinger became angry because he couldn’t find his drugs.

Rice said that Billinger accused Thomas and Martin of taking his drugs. When they protested that they had not taken his drugs, Billinger ordered them to strip off their clothes to prove it. Martin then put his clothes back on. Rice said Thomas was still naked when Billinger slapped her. Rice said Billinger then punched Martin and struck both of them with a wooden object like a table leg.

At some point, Thomas produced a knife, which Rice said she always carried, but Billinger took it from her. Rice said he left the apartment after Billinger began stabbing the victims.

A forensic analyst testified that DNA tests were performed on numerous blood swabs as well as fingernail cuttings from both victims. The tests revealed only the DNA of Howard and Thomas, except for a swab of a blood stain that was found in the hallway outside the apartment. The DNA was entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the profile of a convicted offender named Kevin Jones was suggested as the source of the DNA.

Detective Min testified that he obtained a photo of Jones and showed it to people who had been in the apartment building. Min said no one had seen Jones there, so he eliminated him as a suspect.

Prior to the trial, Billinger’s cellmate, Ian McCarthy, had written a letter to Billinger’s defense attorney, but addressed the letter to the district attorney’s office. The letter said that Rice had been seen leaving the apartment where the bodies were found with blood on his clothing.

The prosecution contended that this was a brazen attempt by Billinger to falsely try to pin the crime on Rice. McCarthy testified that he wrote the letter of his own accord because he believed Billinger’s claim of innocence.

Billinger contended that he was in a drug treatment center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the time of the crime, but that alibi could not be verified.

On August 2, 2018, the jury acquitted Billinger of first-degree murder and carrying a dangerous weapon and convicted him of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

In 2019, Marilyn Mosby, then the State’s Attorney of Baltimore City, revealed that her office had created a list of more than 300 police officers who had credibility issues. Ultimately, the list was disclosed in 2022 following a court battle.

Billinger discovered that Min was on the list. In 2004, an internal police investigation showed he filed a false report to substantiate a false arrest. The department had sought to fire him, but instead he had been reprimanded, suspended for five days, and transferred.

Billinger wrote to Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. Katz and assistant public defender Nora Fakhri then obtained Min’s disciplinary records, and subsequently filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of Billinger.

The motion noted that the Baltimore police department had sustained allegations that Min “made a false statement, wrote a false report, and subjected a citizen to inappropriate detention. These charges stemmed from an incident during which Detective Min arrested an office maintenance worker for burglary after ignoring or refusing the man’s efforts to provide proof that his presence was lawful. Detective Min then lied about those details in a statement of probable cause. Detective Min was also caught making false statements to an Internal Affairs detective during the investigation.”

The motion said that prosecution had failed to disclose Min’s background, which could have been used at the trial to challenge his credibility.

During a hearing on the motion, Levi argued, “Mr. Billinger is sitting inside a prison cell looking at the rest of his natural life in prison. If we are going to impose what we believe is the most harsh sentence that we can impose in our society, it ought and better to be fair.”

Levi told Circuit Court Judge Judy Phinn, who had presided over Billinger’s trial: “It’s very easy for all of us to argue this and at the end of the day walk out to our car and drive home. He was not given a fair trial and he is entitled to a new one.” The prosecution contended that even if the information about Min’s discipline had been disclosed, Billinger still would have been convicted.

On May 8, 2023, Judge Phinn vacated Billinger’s conviction, ruling that Min’s disciplinary record was relevant to his credibility and that the trial might have resulted in an acquittal had the defense received the record prior to Billinger’s trial.

On January 18, 2024, Billinger was released to house arrest. On January 29, 2024, the prosecution dismissed the case, saying it was unable to locate Rice to testify at a retrial. A prior motion by the prosecution to use Rice's testimony from Billinger's first trial had been denied.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/6/2024
Last Updated: 6/6/2024
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2017
Sentence:60 years
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No