retrial not certain for man in prison for 28 years
Tuesday, June 25, 2002
When Steven Crawford wakes up this morning, for the first time in 28 years he won't be looking through a small slot of a window at a yard surrounded by barbed wire.
Instead, Crawford, 45, will have a view of the yard of his parents' Susquehanna Twp. home, an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet the only reminder that he is not yet a free man.
But now, he is presumed innocent, awaiting a trial that may never happen.
Dauphin County President Judge Joseph H. Kleinfelter freed Crawford on $1 bail yesterday after prosecutors conceded he did not receive a fair trial in the 1970 murder of John Eddie Mitchell, a Harrisburg newspaper carrier bludgeoned to death for $32 in collections.
Crawford walked out of Dauphin County Prison at 2:10 p.m., carrying a garment bag and still wearing one of the two suits he owned for his years of court appearances.
"Finally I can go home now," Crawford said. "I just want to go home with my family."
With her eyes welling outside the courtroom, Crawford's mother, Mary, said, "This is the first time in 28 years that I've walked out of this courthouse not crying. If I do start, it will be tears of joy."
Kleinfelter ordered Crawford be placed on electronic monitoring and scheduled a new trial for Aug. 5.
However, District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. said a decision has not been reached on whether to try Crawford a fourth time.
"Today's question was about whether Steven Crawford received a fair trial," Marsico said. "It's for tomorrow to decide whether there will be a retrial."
Marsico said the decision to concur with Crawford's attorneys on the request for a new trial came down to a question of fundamental fairness.
He said the notes of a state police chemist that contradicted her testimony and the theory of the whole case should have been disclosed to the defense during Crawford's three trials that all ended in convictions on first-degree murder charges and mandatory life terms.
"The prosecutor's role is to zealously prosecute those who are guilty but also to serve as a minister of justice, to assure fairness throughout the process," Marsico said.
"After a thorough review of thousands of pages of transcripts and documents, and interviewing many witnesses, our office is concerned that the failure to disclose these laboratory notes could have potentially affected the fairness of Crawford's trial," he said.
Crawford's attorneys, Jerry J. Russo and Joshua D. Lock, lauded Marsico's decision to "preserve the integrity of the justice system."
"It was a difficult decision, and they are to be commended for it," Lock told Kleinfelter after Senior Deputy District Attorney Francis T. Chardo conceded.
It appears unlikely Crawford will be tried again.
Not only will the witnesses in the case have to try to recall details from 32 years ago, but some witnesses have changed their stories and other suspects have confessed to participation in Mitchell's murder.
Lock said he hopes Marsico will act similarly when deciding whether to pursue another trial.
"We hope he makes the next decision on protecting the integrity of the system to emphasize the point that police misconduct not only will not be tolerated, but also so undermines the process that the district attorney will not pursue this case any further," Lock said.
If prosecutors go forward with a new prosecution, Crawford's attorneys can ask the court to bar any retrial on double-jeopardy grounds because of prosecutorial misconduct, a standard adopted by the state Supreme Court in 1992.
Marsico said he consulted with Mitchell's mother before making the decision and said she understood his reasoning. Betty Mitchell did not return a telephone call for comment.
Crawford, who was 14 at the time of the murder and was friends with Mitchell, has maintained his innocence and twice rejected deals that would have set him free if he pleaded to a lesser degree of homicide.
He was arrested four years after the slaying after police said they identified his handprints on a car next to Mitchell's body, which was found in a detached garage owned by Crawford's family in an alley behind their North Fifth Street home.
With little else to tie him to the killing, police tried to place him at the scene by saying blood found on the prints were on his hand when he touched the car.
Chemist Janice Roadcap and two other investigators said blood was only on the ridges of the print, which meant it was on his hand when he touched the car.
But as Crawford was on his last round of appeals last year, a copy of Roadcap's original lab notes was discovered in a briefcase owned by investigator Walton D. Simpson, who died in 1994.
The briefcase was found in trash by two youths in Lower Allen Twp. and the notes were uncovered by Richard Garvey, an investigator for the federal public defender's office, which was handling Crawford's last-ditch appeal.
Those notes said a blood test showed blood particles in the valleys between the ridges, as well. When the notes were pulled from state police archives, the references to the particles in the valleys were crossed out.
Prosecutors maintain the notes do not clear Crawford and were prepared to present blood-spatter expert Herbert MacDonnel, who has flip-flopped three times on the meaning of the blood, to say they still point to his guilt.
While Marsico said he did not believe there was any malicious intent on the part of police, Lock and Russo said police intentionally hid the evidence to railroad Crawford.
Attorney William C. Costopoulos, who represented Crawford through the three trials, said Crawford never would have been convicted had the notes been available. Former Judge John C. Dowling has agreed, saying the blood evidence was the "linchpin" of the prosecution case.
Yesterday, Costopoulos said Marsico made the right call.
"This was the case of the
bloody print for three trials, and now they don't have the bloody print,"
Costopoulos said. "It was the right decision for Eddie. This wasn't done
on [Marsico's] watch." Staff writer Theodore Decker contributed to this
report. PETE SHELLEM: 255-8156 or firstname.lastname@example.org