Man serves four months for crime he didn't commit
Detective claimed crime lab matched burglar's fingerprints when it didn't
By SCOTT DAUGHERTY, Staff Writer
Published June 22, 2008
A Glen Burnie, Maryland man spent four months in jail based on information that turned out to be false.
In charging documents related to a burglary from earlier this year, a county police detective wrote that Raymond H. Jonassen's fingerprints matched a set discovered at the crime scene.
Investigators later discovered that wasn't the case and Mr. Jonassen was set free.
Police and prosecutors said they don't know why Detective Greg Tate wrongly told the court in January the county's crime lab matched Mr. Jonassen's fingerprints - or if that misstatement was intentional or unintentional.
Sgt. John Gilmer, county police spokesman, said the department is now investigating what happened, but stressed Detective Tate, a 15-year veteran, still is on active duty. He said the department first learned of the misstatement Thursday from The Capital, which had learned of the situation from Mr. Jonassen.
Mr. Jonassen, who was charged Jan. 22 with first-degree burglary, misdemeanor theft and felony destruction of property, said no one at the department checked their facts before locking him in jail.
"I spent four months in jail for a burglary I didn't commit," he said.
Mr. Jonassen, whose criminal history includes two convictions for misdemeanor theft and a third for possession of drug paraphernalia, served 108 days at the Jennifer Road Detention Center while awaiting trial. He was placed on house arrest May 9 and released from all supervision May 29, when prosecutors dropped all charges.
Assistant Public Defender William Cooke, Mr. Jonassen's attorney, said the department needs to figure out what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.
"I think my client deserves an explanation. I think the public deserves an explanation," he said, disputing the department's assertion no one told them about the charging document foul-up until this week. He said he left a voicemail for Detective Tate in late May, which was never returned, and traded several voicemails with Ernie Lowman at the crime lab. He said he ultimately received copies of two fingerprint examination reports that contradict the court records.
Kristin Fleckenstein, spokesman for the State's Attorney Office, said Assistant State's Attorney Crighton Chase also tried to contact the investigating officer to no avail.
"This guy (Mr. Jonassen) was held all this time on something that was apparently incorrect," Mr. Cooke said. "He deserves some answers."
Misstatements in charging documents can have far-reaching consequences.
Ms. Fleckenstein said prosecutors rely on police officers to be accurate and truthful when they file charges because they don't have time to review the evidence in every case ahead of time.
"It's crucial to the criminal justice system," she said. "Our office handles thousands and thousands and thousands of cases each year. They (prosecutors) are preparing for cases that are happening the next day and week."
Ms. Fleckenstein said prosecutors aren't assigned cases in Circuit Court until at least six weeks after the arrest. In this case, prosecutors even filed paperwork charging Mr. Jonassen with a felony March 26, 2008, without realizing the fingerprint match didn't exist.
Doug Colbert, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the case illustrates a significant weakness with the state's criminal justice system. He said a disgruntled citizen or police officer can go to a court commissioner and file charges with little or no evidence, knowing it will take months for anyone to realize the case is too weak to take to trial.
"This is inexcusable ... Where were the prosecutors? Where were the defense attorneys? Where were the checks and balances?" he said, explaining that most other states require a prosecutor to file charges and initiate criminal proceedings.
Mr. Colbert said he regularly hears about cases similar to this, particularly when the defendants are too poor to afford an attorney.
"There is something fundamentally wrong and unjust about our criminal justice system" he said, noting it can take months for the Office of the Public Defender to assign an attorney to a case. "Most of the people this happens to don't have access to a lawyer."
Police developed Mr. Jonassen as a suspect almost immediately after the burglary.
Edward Zimnawoda called police Dec. 6, 2007, to say someone had broken into his home on Thomas Road and tried to steal two sets of golf clubs and a hack saw.
Nothing was stolen, police said, possibly because Mr. Zimnawoda returned home and scared off the burglar.
When Officer Michael Galligan, a 20-year veteran, went to the home to investigate that day, he found tracks in the snow leading from the back of Mr. Zimnawoda's home to Mr. Jonassen's apartment.
Officer Galligan talked to Mr. Jonassen that day, but he denied seeing anything.
Officer Galligan then called crime-scene technicians to search for fingerprints. They found seven latent prints.
One month later, Detective Tate, who had taken over the investigation, said the county's crime lab cracked the case.
"On 1-5-07 I received a positive hit on the palm prints that are identical to the defendant, Raymond H. Jonassen," Detective Tate wrote in the charging documents after swearing under the penalties of perjury his statements were true to the best of his knowledge.
With that information, he sought a warrant for Mr. Jonassen's arrest.
It took almost five months for anyone to realize the lab never matched Mr. Jonassen's fingerprints to those of the burglar.
Mr. Cooke said he always planned to question the veracity of the fingerprint match, but he never expected to find it hadn't happened. He said Mr. Jonassen had two alibis the morning of the alleged burglary and his client spent most of that morning at the Glen Burnie District Courthouse on an unrelated traffic charge.
"We were well prepared for trial," he said. "Obviously the fingerprint would have been a problem, but that turned out not to exist."
Mr. Cooke said he learned the lab checked the prints twice - once on Dec. 8, 2007, and again on May 9. The lab technician wrote in his first report the fingerprints on file for Mr. Jonassen were not good enough to make a positive match. He said in his second report the prints were not identical.
Ms. Fleckenstein said Mr. Chase, the assistant state's attorney, didn't discover the charging documents were wrong until after May 9, when Mr. Jonassen appeared in Circuit Court for a short "status conference." At that time, Mr. Jonassen swore he was innocent and Mr. Chase started looking at the case.
Ms. Fleckenstein said Mr. Chase contacted the crime lab that day about the fingerprint evidence, only to learn there was no match.
Over the next two weeks, Mr. Chase tried to determine if they still had a case against Mr. Jonassen - ultimately deciding to drop all charges.
"We were not confident we had the person who committed the crime," Ms. Fleckenstein said.
While civil liberty groups wish Mr. Jonassen had not been arrested and incarcerated like this, most experts are waiting to sound the alarm.
Michele Nethercott, who heads the public defender's Innocence Project, described the incident as "pretty troubling."
She said she wants to know what happened.
"You are kind of left with speculation," she said, adding that she believes either the police officer lied or the crime lab gave him wrong information.
"Whichever it is, it is concerning," she said.
Kimberly Haven, executive director of Maryland Justice, said she does not believe the case was indicative of a larger problem with Detective Tate or the county Police Department.
"It looks like maybe one of those rush-to-arrest situations," she said.
Still, Ms. Haven said, there are lessons to be learned.
"It's a reminder the system is not infallible, though," she said.