The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for three men convicted of plotting a 2006 murder, saying the trial judge was wrong to deny their lawyers time to rebut testimony from a key government witness.
Brian Gilliam, John Daniels and Ronald English were charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and several related charges in connection with the fatal shooting of Anthony Knight in January 2006.
The government's case, according to the appeals court's Nov. 21 opinion, relied heavily on testimony from Byron Holmes, who pleaded guilty to being involved in the shooting and named Gilliam, Daniels and English as co-conspirators. Gilliam, Daniels and English denied killing Knight and said Holmes was covering for the real killers.
Over four days of deliberation, the jury told the court three times it couldn't reach a decision. The jury ultimately acquitted Gilliam, Daniels and English of the murder charge but found them guilty of conspiracy to murder Knight and carrying a pistol without a license. They appealed.
The appeals court focused on D.C. Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Alprin's denial of defense lawyers' request for time to call another witness. Holmes testified that Daniels called him to coordinate meeting up before the shooting. Defense lawyers presented evidence that Holmes didn't receive a call from Daniels, but the prosecutor asked questions on cross-examination implying Holmes might have had a different phone at the time.
The trial was almost over, but defense lawyers asked for an additional few days to produce the representative of a phone company who, they said, would verify records showing the second phone wasn’t working at the time in question. The government said it wouldn't waive the representative's presence. Alprin denied the request for a continuance, saying the phone issue was "a small point in the trial" and he did not want to delay the case.
Judge Stephen Glickman, writing for the court, said Alprin underestimated the importance of the cell phone issue. After defense lawyers produced evidence there was no record of a call to Holmes' cell phone, the prosecutor's references to a possible second phone undermined the force of that impeaching evidence, he wrote.
"[I]f appellants could adduce evidence proving that Holmes never received such a call, it would be no mere technicality," he wrote. "It would impeach the pivot of Holmes‘s testimony and cast doubt on his entire story that he and appellants joined forces in the District to murder Knight."
Both the prosecutor and judge's response to the evidence about the second phone was "dismaying," Glickman wrote.
The judge's mistake was harmful because the case was so close, the court found, ordering a new trial. Judges John Fisher and Kathryn Oberly also heard the case.
Daniels' lawyer, solo practitioner Thomas Heslep, said he was glad his client would get a new trial, but noted Daniels had already finished his jail sentence. Still, if a jury acquitted Daniels after a second trial, Heslep said it would clear his record and mean he wouldn't have to finish the rest of his supervised release.
Gilliam's lawyer, solo practitioner Montrell Scaife, could not be reached for comment. English's lawyers at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia declined to comment.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, William Miller, said they were reviewing the decision and had no comment.
Updated at 3:10 p.m.