Wrongfully held 20 years, Md. man to be freed today;
Imprisoned for rape DNA shows he did not commit


By Stephanie Hanes, Sun Staff

A Baltimore man who has spent 20 years in prison for a rape that DNA tests show he did not commit is scheduled to walk free today after a hearing in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the first person to be exonerated under Maryland's new DNA law.

Bernard Webster was 19 when a 47-year-old schoolteacher identified him as the man who broke into her Towson home and raped her.

Webster is 40 now, without relatives, a job or a home outside the limestone walls of the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

"His life basically ended when he was 19 years old," said Cynthia Boersma, an attorney in the Maryland public defender's office.

The DNA law, which took effect in 2001, allows judges to order DNA testing for people serving sentences for murder and rape when that testing could prove their
innocence.

Webster will be the third person in Maryland - the 115th nationwide - to have a conviction overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project at
the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, a nonprofit legal clinic that seeks to identify and free people who have been wrongly convicted.

Michele Nethercott, who runs the Maryland public defender's Innocence Project, which has the same mission as the New York clinic, began working on
Webster's case in 2000 when the Baltimore man asked the public defender's office for help in proving his innocence.

Webster had made that request of the office regularly since his 1983 conviction, according to the public defenders, but there was little the attorneys could do
until the advent of DNA testing.

In 2001, as Nethercott was looking into the case, Webster filed his own petition for a DNA test. Although the Baltimore County state's attorney's asked the court to deny that motion, Judge Christian Kahl allowed Webster to go forward, citing the new statute.

Meanwhile, Nethercott's work on the case brought her to the pathology department at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. There, she found three slides of potential DNA evidence preserved from the July 6, 1982, sexual assault evaluation of the victim.

The attack had taken place that afternoon, soon after the Towson woman, now 67, came home to her ground-floor apartment across the street from Towson University. She had spent the afternoon lying in the sun with friends, she told the jury.

--A man in the closet

In her apartment, she said, she heard a rustling noise coming from the bedroom. She said she assumed it was her husband.

But when she walked into the bedroom, a black man jumped out of the closet.

"There was sort of a frozen moment, and I think that he was standing, he may have been standing on this yellow, this little yellow suitcase that's in my closet," she told the jury in 1983. "And he lunged at me, and then I screamed."

She told the jury the man put what he said was a gun to her back, wrapped a robe around her head, forced her onto the bed and raped her. He threatened to kill
her if she did not stop trembling.

The man then left the apartment. The woman's husband came home some minutes later, and they called the police.

Webster became a suspect in the crime because the Baltimore County police had arrested him months earlier at the Loyola Federal Building in Towson for
the theft of a pocketbook, according to court papers.

As detectives continued their investigation, they found evidence they said connected Webster to the rape, including a key found in a pair of pants left by
the assailant under the victim's bed. They said the key fit the lock on Webster's apartment.

Defense attorneys said the key did not fit, and presented two witnesses at Webster's trial who said they saw Webster playing basketball that day miles
away from the rape scene.

Also at the trial, the defense raised questions after a police forensics lab technician testified that Webster's blood matched that found on a bedspread, contradicting an earlier report that said otherwise. She blamed the discrepancy on a typographical error.

--Other witnesses

But two people who worked at the Towsontown Boulevard apartment complex where the rape occurred said Webster was the man they had seen around the building that day.

And the victim picked Webster out of a photo lineup as her attacker.

In October, Nethercott received results of DNA testing on the hospital slides. They showed the semen could not have come from Webster. Last week, the state's
attorney's office got the results of its own testing, which also confirmed Webster's innocence.

The victim said yesterday that she was upset and did not want to talk to a reporter.

"You can't imagine it, you just can't," she said. The Sun does not identify victims of sexual assault.

--Mistaken identity

Assistant State's Attorney John Cox, who heads the office's sex offense division, said the woman has told him she was confident in her identification.

"I cannot say I have convinced her of his innocence," he said. Mistakes in witness identifications, especially when it is a cross-racial identification, are common, defense attorneys said.

Aliza Kaplan, deputy director of the Innocence Project at Cardozo, said there were mistakes in victim witness identifications in about 70 percent of her group's
cases.

"Usually the victim is doing the best job he or she can do, but it happens over and over," she said.

In Webster's case, Nethercott said, there is no indication of any prosecutorial misconduct.

But that raises another question, especially in Baltimore County, defense attorneys said.

"Baltimore County is responsible for Maryland's death row population," Boersma said. "Here you have a case where things worked as they're intended to work, and
they still got the wrong guy. There are implications as to whether we can trust the way the death penalty works."

Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandy A. O'Connor agreed that the case might affect the way people feel about the death penalty. But she said the DNA evidence
used to exonerate defendants in old cases is now available during trial, thus preventing wrongful convictions such as Webster's.

"We now have that level of forensics, and juries insist upon it," she said.

Webster's conviction is the second to be overturned in Baltimore County because of DNA evidence.

Death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth was exonerated in 1993 after DNA testing showed he could not have committed the murder and rape he was convicted of in
1985.

--Where to now?

As of last night, Nethercott and Patrick Kent, the other attorney working on Webster's case, were still trying to figure out where Webster would be able to
sleep tonight.

Webster, who has a 10th-grade education, was taken away from his biological mother when he was 3. His foster mother died while he was in prison.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison but because of good behavior credits he was to be released in February.

Webster had little training in prison and was never granted parole, in part, his attorneys said, because he refused to admit his guilt. He is not entitled to any compensation from the state for his time in prison, his lawyers said.

"It's bittersweet, for sure," Nethercott said.

Source: Baltimore Sun


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