High court reverses murder convictions, cites newly found evidence

Prosecutors dropped drug charges against witness’ grandson in exchange for testimony

By Steve Lash
BridgeTower Media Newswires

BALTIMORE, MD - Maryland's top court on Monday unanimously overturned the murder convictions of two men, citing recently discovered evidence pointing to a different suspect and the recent disclosure of a deal investigators made with a major state witness before trial.

The Court of Appeals said there was "a substantial or significant possibility" that the juries would not have convicted David Faulkner and Jonathan Smith had jurors been told of the murder-scene palm print and the pledge to release the witness' grandchild from a drug charge if she testified against the men.

In its 7-0 decision, the high court ordered new trials for Faulkner and Smith, who were serving life sentences for the Jan. 5, 1987, burglary and stabbing death of 68-year-old Adeline Curry Wilford in the kitchen of her home near Easton.

Faulkner and Smith were found guilty in 2001 by Talbot County Circuit Court juries following a cold-case investigation and separate trials that their post-conviction, Innocence Project attorneys later found were incomplete.

In 2012 or 2013, the attorneys filed Public Information Act requests for the recordings of pretrial conversations between Maryland State Police officers and Beverly Haddaway, Smith's aunt and a prosecution witness. The recordings revealed Haddaway demanding and receiving the dismissal of her grandson's drug charges in return for her testimony, according to court papers.

Haddaway testified that she saw Faulkner, Smith and a third man, Ray Andrews, walking less than three miles from Wilford's home on the fateful day and that Smith's shirt was bloody.

Andrews also testified against Faulkner and Smith after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 2013, Faulkner's and Smith's attorneys also secured a court order for investigators to run what had been an unidentified palm print through the state's then-new automated print identification system. The system identified a man named Ty Brooks as having been at the scene, according to the high court's opinion.

Neither Haddaway nor Andrews ever mentioned Brooks, who was never investigated in connection with the burglary or slaying of Wilford.

Defense counsel for Faulkner and Smith petitioned the Talbot County Circuit Court for writs of actual innocence, which would allow for new trials if granted.

But the circuit court denied the request, a denial upheld by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals. Faulkner and Smith then sought review by the high court.

"Although we are persuaded that there is a substantial or significant possibility that, if the juries had heard the newly discovered evidence along with the evidence that actually was presented (including the lack of physical evidence linking Smith and Faulkner to the crime), they would have reached a different result, we do not exonerate Smith and Faulkner," wrote Judge Jonathan Biran, citing the men's confessed involvement in the underlying burglary and the damning testimony of their alleged accomplice, Andrews.

"We do not order the grants of these writs of actual innocence lightly," Biran added in his first written Court of Appeals opinion. "Nor do we predict the outcome of Smith's and Faulkner's new trials, should the state elect to retry them. Nevertheless, we are convinced that new trials are warranted in light of the newly discovered evidence discussed in this opinion."

Faulkner's counsel, Shawn Armbrust and John W.F. Chesley, praised the court's decision and hailed their client's resilience.

"He has been in prison for 20 years for a crime he didn't commit," said Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

"We haven't yet been vindicated" at trial, she said. However, she added, "we are thrilled but also relieved that we got the result that we sought for six years now."

Armbrust said she and Chesley were speaking for themselves Tuesday and not for Faulkner because they had not yet received his permission to speak on his behalf.

"(Faulkner) has maintained his innocence throughout; he has shown fortitude throughout," said Chesley, of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Washington. "It has been his strength that has kept me going."

Smith's attorney, Bryce N. Benjet, did not respond to a message Tuesday seeking comment on the decision. Benjet, formerly with the Innocence Project, directs the conviction integrity unit at the Queens County, New York, district attorney's office.

The Maryland Attorney General's Office also did not respond to a request for comment.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in the consolidated cases, David R. Faulkner v. State of Maryland and Jonathan D. Smith v. State of Maryland, Nos. 42 and 43, September Term 2019.

Published: Tue, May 05, 2020