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‘Error’ in judge’s trial forces dismissal of double murder case

‘Error’ in judge’s trial forces dismissal of double murder case

The murder case against Alphonso J. Walker was already “shaky” when a D.C. Superior Court judge made a mistake, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals said.

The higher court said prosecutors’ presentation during the nine-day trial was based on “extremely problematic witnesses” in the 2018 shooting deaths of Antone Brown, 44, and Dalonte Wilson, 23. Then, a woman questioned by the government recounted neighborhood rumors that Walker was the killer — the kind of rumors typically not shared in court.

Walker’s attorneys accused prosecutors of sabotaging their own case to get a judge to declare a mistrial — giving them a chance to re-present the evidence with an unfair advantage, after learning the defense’s trial strategy. Judge Rainey R. Brandt ruled that the only way forward was a full retrial.

That decision was wrong, the appeals court panel wrote in a 51-page decision last month. And it means Walker cannot be tried again for the killings, the panel ruled.

The relatives of the murdered men felt they had been denied justice as a formality: if prosecutors cannot bring to justice those they hold responsible, how can anyone be held accountable?

“I’m just numb,” said Charlotte Boyd, Brown’s sister. “I’m disgusted. The justice system has failed us. It has failed the families.”

Legal experts say the decision — rooted in a constitutional protection that prevents people from being tried twice for the same offense — is likely to resonate within the walls of the Washington, D.C., courthouse, warning judges to think carefully before declaring a mistrial if defense lawyers don’t want it, experts said.

Ultimately, the judges ruled that prosecutorial error should not have deprived Walker of the right to have his case heard.

“When a defendant prefers to litigate against the headwind of unfair prejudice brought against him at trial and chooses to risk years of imprisonment rather than immediately start over, we see no adequate justification for depriving him of that choice,” Judge Joshua Deahl wrote.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Walker, 47, of Washington, fatally shot Wilson and Brown in the head on the evening of April 25, 2018, at a home in the 400 block of 61st Street NE, where people gathered to buy, sell and use drugs. Both men were unarmed, prosecutors said.

Boyd, who attended the trial, said her brother did not use drugs but began selling them to support his three daughters, the youngest of whom was a baby when he was killed. “I don’t condone selling drugs, but I understand why he had to do it, to provide for himself and his daughters,” she said.

Walker’s public defenders argued that their client was not the killer. His attorney said that in fact one of the prosecution’s witnesses who was in the house at the time of the shooting and identified Walker as the killer had conspired with another defendant, unlocked the door to the house and let the shooter in.

By the time the woman whose testimony derailed the proceedings took the stand, the jury had heard from 25 other witnesses. She essentially told the jury that “everyone said” Walker committed the murders, the verdict said, prompting a flurry of objections from Walker’s attorneys and prosecutors that Brandt was trying to compromise with a specific instruction to the jury on what to ignore – before they eventually called it all off.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Georgetown Law professor Merrie Leininger, director of the school’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. “The D.C. Court of Appeals got this absolutely right.”

Normally, a judge can order a new trial only in exceptional circumstances, such as improper conduct by a juror or if the jury cannot reach a verdict, Leininger said, adding that the constitutional protection against double jeopardy applies once the jury is sworn in and begins hearing evidence.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves defended his prosecutors, saying jurors should have been given a chance to hear the full case.

“Our prosecutors handled this case with the utmost integrity in their efforts to obtain justice for the victims. Our hearts go out to the families of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Brown, who will never know what a jury would have done if they had been allowed to consider the evidence.”

Brandt, who serves as deputy presiding judge of the criminal division, declined to comment on the ruling through a court spokesman. The District Public Defender’s Office, which represented Walker, also declined to comment on the decision.

According to him, Deahl, a former attorney with the Public Defender Service before President Donald Trump appointed him as a judge in 2019, wrote that prosecutors had a challenging case against Walker, citing witnesses who were drug users and who he said may not have been perceived as credible by some jurors.

During the trial, one of the prosecution’s witnesses told police and a grand jury that she could not identify the shooter, but that she later changed her account after learning of a $50,000 reward for information leading to the shooter’s arrest. Also revealed during the trial, according to the appeals judges, That same witness had previously been convicted of perjury for falsely identifying a person to protect a drug dealer after someone offered her $300 to identify another person.

U.S. Attorneys consistently argue that while many people who witness violent crimes may have criminal histories themselves, that does not mean their stories are false.

Graves defended the witnesses and praised them for coming forward. “Our office believed in the citizens who were brave enough to come to court and testify. While all witnesses are human beings with imperfections, we believed a jury would have come to the same conclusion we did,” he said.

Prosecutors also called a firearms expert who testified that a gun found in Walker’s apartment eight months after the shooting matched the weapon used in the killings. But the expert admitted in court that he had only examined the weapon “by eye” and had not actually tested it, according to the appeals court ruling.

The woman whose testimony rocked the trial said Walker confessed to the murders in his truck the night he committed them. There, she told the jury, she got a call from a friend who told her that “everyone” was saying Walker had just killed two men. GPS data Walker’s attorneys provided during the trial showed his truck was out of the county at the time she said they met, the ruling said.

Defense attorneys wanted her entire testimony stricken from the record; prosecutors wanted only the secondhand portions.

Brandt attempted to instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. But she and Walker’s attorney disagreed on the language of the instruction.

“This was a hypothetical example of a law school that became a reality,” said Adam Kurland, a professor at Howard University’s law school.

Kurland said prosecutors made a “pretty big mistake” by introducing hearsay testimony, but that Brandt was “gagged and strangled” by declare a mistrial rather than telling the jury to disregard the testimony, even if defense attorneys disagreed with the wording of the instruction.

“This case,” Kurland said, “is now a great teaching tool for evidence professors and criminal law professors” about the kinds of procedural errors that should and should not lead to a mistrial.