Convicted murderer loses his chance to prove innocence
Evidence has disappeared, prosecutor says
Kellie Woodhouse, email@example.com
June 10, 2011
A man convicted of a deadly Ellicott City shooting almost 24 years ago was denied a retroactive DNA test Thursday, June 9, because prosecutors said the evidence the man wanted tested had disappeared.
William H. Ray, now 53, was found guilty April 21, 1988, in the death of restaurant owner George Prassos in what police believe was a robbery gone awry. A baseball cap was one of the central items prosecutors used to link Ray to the murder, even asking the judge to re-open the case so they could produce a last-minute witness who testified he'd seen Ray wearing the cap while working at the Pimlico Race Course. According to an October 1988 Columbia Flier article, several jurors said that it was that witness who convinced them of the guilty verdict.
"It was very dramatic, very Perry Mason-like, coming at the end of the trial," Ray's former defense attorney, Robert Landolt, said then. "And it tended to overshadow the other witnesses."
Now, Ray, who has maintained his innocence and has filed numerous requests for appeals and reconsideration since his conviction, wants a DNA profile conducted on hair obtained from the hat.
In the 1980s, police did not have the capability to conduct DNA tests on human hair. Since gaining that technology, Maryland has enacted a statute that allows for retroactive DNA testing. Ray and his lawyer, Justin Esworthy, who works with the Innocence Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law, believe a DNA profile could possibly bring to light another suspect.
However, Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Todd Taylor said "we don't have the evidence to test."
The hat, Taylor said, no longer exists. He's had court personnel, police and other parties involved with the case search for the hat, but to no avail. There's no record of anyone taking it from the circuit court or the police property room, although there is record of certain individuals collecting other evidence, according to court documents.
"I think there might not have been protocol" concerning evidence storage after a trial, said Esworthy. According to an affidavit from Wayne Robey, the Howard County Deputy Clerk, the clerk's office has "no written procedures dealing" with the documentation and signing-out of evidence.
Esworthy said the lost hat was a blow to his client's quest to be cleared.
"A hat is one of the best places to get DNA…It was August, the assailant was sweating and it was soaked into a cotton sweatband and into the hat, so it would absorb it," Esworthy said. "If the DNA on the hat doesn't match the defendant, then that's a big piece of evidence."
Esworthy said that in a petition earlier this year, he had the hat strap, which was found in the police department's evidence room detached from the hat, tested for a DNA profile but there was not enough DNA on it to get a conclusive result.
Since being sentenced to life plus ten years in 1988, Ray has brought his case to the state's Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed his guilty verdict, asked for a sentencing reconsideration, which was denied, and appealed that denial, a move that proved unfruitful. According to court records, he has written Howard County Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Rappaport at least ten times asking for copies of court records and, in later years, wrote twice to Circuit Court Chief Judge Diane O. Leasure, who presided over the June 9 hearing.
At that hearing, Leasure dismissed a petition for DNA testing because the hat could not be located. Leasure said she is not opposed to the case being reopened if the hat is found.
Taylor said that disappearing evidence is rare.
"I've been in the game for 35 years, I've never seen it happen," he said.
Esworthy has had a different experience.
"In a high percentage of these cases the evidence does not exist," he said. "Especially these old ones."
Police originally charged two
Originally, police charged Prassos' son, Dimitrious "Jimmy" Prassos, as a co-conspirator in the botched robbery turned murder. They believed that Prassos was the mastermind behind the robbery and Ray the gunman.
However, murder charges against Prassos, then 23, were dropped a week before his trial because of a lack of evidence. Before his sentencing hearing, Ray made a deal to testify against Prassos in return for a 10 year sentence, according to a Columbia Flier article from August 4, 1988, but that deal unraveled because Ray told authorities too many lies, according to police at the time.
When the deal fell through, Ray said he told police what he thought they wanted to hear. At the time, prosecutors were asking for the death penalty.
"Ten years looks better than life. I was innocent and I was making up stories," Ray said, according to a Nov. 22, 1988, Flier article.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Fisher denied the death penalty, because, in his opinion, the shooting was the accidental result of a struggle that ensued when the victim tried to unarm his assailant.
According to witnesses, George Prassos' murderer wore a baseball cap during the shooting and lost it before he fled the scene. Police recovered a tan, corduroy hat with a "Garden State Park" logo from the scene.
State prosecutors Richard O'Connor and Timothy J. McCrone — McCrone went on to become Howard County's State's Attorney and is now a judge on the county's circuit court — presented evidence that linked Ray to the hat.
During the trial, the last-minute witness testified that he had seen Ray wearing a hat with a "Garden State" logo on it while at work. Additionally, three of Ray's fellow inmates testified that Ray had spoken about being involved in a violent robbery.
However, defense attorneys contested that there was no reliable evidence to link Ray to the hat. They also said the testimony of the inmates was tainted because it was a result of deals from prosecutors.
DNA testing 'stronger'
FBI agent Mike Malone testified that the hair found on the baseball cap did not match a sample of Ray's hair. Though no definitive DNA tests existed at the time, Malone conducted a hair composition analysis — examining the hair's texture, consistency and color— to see if it matched Ray's.
"Did they come from William Ray?" a defense attorney asked at the time, according to a transcript of the trial.
"No, they did not," Malone replied.
Taylor, the current prosecutor, said that even if the hat was discovered, the case would likely remain unchanged.
"I don't think it would have made a difference... because the jury already heard that hairs found in that hat were not his," Taylor said.
But Esworthy says that if the DNA profile did not match Ray's, the difference would be huge.
"That's unreliable science," Esworthy said of that 1988 forensic hair testing. "The DNA is so much stronger than hair."
Taylor said that other evidence, such as testimony from a female friend that Ray had made incriminating statements to her and testimony from the last-minute witness, swayed the jury.
But throughout Ray's appeals and requests for reconsideration, defense attorneys have argued that much of the evidence should have been inadmissible or led to a mistrial.
That list includes re-opening of the case because of the last minute witness, the use of inmates without being forthcoming about deals they made to testify and allowing a jury to hear testimony from Ray's drug counselor, who said Ray made incriminating statements to her.
"Everyone who testifies has their own motives and reasoning." Esworthy said.
Esworthy said he couldn't expand further because the Innocence Project is exploring "other avenues" to free Ray.