Court of Appeals throws out murder conviction

… Judges ruled that detective obtained confession by violating suspect’s rights …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

6:09 PM EST, January 31, 2011

When a police detective tells a suspect that their conversation “is between you and me, bud,” it needs to stay that way, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Monday, overturning a murder conviction in Baltimore County.

The judges ruled unanimously that Christopher Darrell Lee’s admission that he shot and killed a man during a home invasion in North Point in 2006 should not have been used at his trial, at which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life plus 110 years in prison.

Lee confessed during an interrogation with Baltimore County homicide Detective Craig Schrott. The suspect, who was 21 at the time, had waived his right to remain silent and had agreed to talk to police.

But just before the confession, Schrott told Lee: “This is between you and me, bud. Only me and you are here, all right. All right?” Those words, the court ruled, “on their face imply confidentiality and thereby directly contradict the advisement that ‘anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.'”

The ruling by Maryland’s highest court vacates Lee’s murder conviction and sends it back to Baltimore County Circuit Court for a new trial.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said prosecutors are reviewing the decision and the ruling, but he said his office would most likely retry the case. “I believe we have sufficient evidence to go back into court,” even without the confession, Shellenberger said.

The county’s top prosecutor defended the detective, saying there had been no case law on this issue. “The officer acted in complete good faith,” Shellenberger said. “It was a very horrible home invasion, with a purely innocent victim, and [the detective] was trying to get the truth.”

Lee was one of three men convicted of killing 40-year-old Eric Fountain in September 2006 at a home on Larkhill Road. Authorities said the suspects had been looking for $100,000 supposedly hidden under a mattress in a bedroom. They woke up the victim, who denied there was any money, and Lee confessed to shooting the victim twice as he tried to run away.

The other two suspects, who were not part of the appeal decided on Monday, are serving terms of life in prison and life with all but 30 years suspended, according to court records.

The trial judge and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld Lee’s conviction and agreed with the trial judge that Schrott’s statement did not change the suspect’s willingness to answer questions. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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