27 Years Gone
Thursday, January 3, 2002
Washington Post, Editorial, Page A16

MICHAEL AUSTIN was freed last week from a Maryland prison after spending 27 years locked up for the murder of a man named Roy Kellam. The judge who freed him stopped short of declaring him innocent, writing instead that his "trial was plagued by multiple problems which, cumulatively, present the inescapable conclusion that he was denied a fair trial." Judge John Carroll Byrnes's 96-page opinion, however, makes clear that, at the very least, there is a considerable chance that an innocent man has spent nearly three decades in prison for a murder in which he was uninvolved.

Mr. Austin was convicted in 1974 of shooting a man during the robbery of a store in Baltimore. He was identified at trial by an eyewitness whom prosecutors portrayed as a straight-arrow college student. But according to Judge Byrnes's opinion, the eyewitness in question, a man named Jackie Robinson, was actually a drug dealer who never finished high school. Moreover, Mr. Robinson -- now deceased -- later testified at the trial of Mr. Austin's alleged accomplice that the accomplice was not among the men he saw, leading the state to drop charges against him. Another eyewitness did not testify. He had initially given police a physical description of the shooter that was completely inconsistent with Mr. Austin's height and weight. He has since testified that Mr. Austin was not the man he saw. To make matters worse, Mr. Austin's defense attorneys failed to obtain his time card at work, which might have powerfully supported his alibi -- though that record has been lost with time. The jury received confusing instructions, and the prosecution made inappropriate statements. The cumulative effect was that Mr. Austin was convicted on evidence that never should have supported a conviction.

Baltimore prosecutors have not yet announced whether they will appeal or retry the case or just drop it, but it is hard to imagine they could retry it. The one witness who implicated Mr. Austin is both discredited and dead. And the significant exculpatory evidence that has arisen since his trial would, in all likelihood, guarantee an acquittal. Mr. Austin has already served decades in prison, and so long after the event -- with so much of the evidence now unavailable -- it would be impossible to determine his culpability with any degree of certainty. The government should sooner risk letting a guilty man serve only 27 years of a life sentence than return to prison an innocent man who has been there unjustly for so long.