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[Joan Wong]

Free to Shoot Again

Murder Conviction of Man in Trace/BuzzFeed News Investigation Overturned

Devon Little’s case was the subject of an investigation into how police departments fail to solve shooting cases, leaving perpetrators free to strike again.

A Maryland court this week reversed the murder conviction of a Baltimore man whose case was featured in an investigation by The Trace and BuzzFeed News that exposed how detectives in police departments across the country fail to adequately investigate shootings because of staffing constraints.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals on February 25 issued a decision throwing out the 2017 murder conviction of Devon Little, a 28-year-old man from West Baltimore. Two of the witnesses in the case said they had seen Little in two different places immediately after the shooting, but the trial judge allowed a detective to explain away this inconsistency. The appellate court determined that the judge had erred in allowing such testimony, and found it may have affected  the outcome of the case.

The Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City has the option to continue pursuing the case, either by appealing the court’s ruling, or by requesting a new trial. “We are assessing this decision to determine the most appropriate next steps,” spokeswoman Melba Saunders said.

Devon Little with his daughter, Ma’launey. [Courtesy of Janice Moses]

The investigation by The Trace and BuzzFeed News, published last month, detailed how Little was shot on the streets of Baltimore on two separate occasions over 15 months, and then eventually accused and convicted of murdering another man, Levon Stokes. The story reported that police had no physical evidence implicating Little in the murder; and that the detective had failed to analyze cell phone records that might have revealed Little’s location at the time of the murder or  interview a key witness to the crime.

The shootings were among a string of nine that took place in Baltimore from 2015 through 2017, all linked by a common victim or suspect, that The Trace and BuzzFeed News investigation examined to show how a failure to make arrests in these crimes leaves the perpetrators free to shoot again.

Crippled by a crime surge, the Baltimore Police Department managed to close only two of the nine cases. But even those were questionable. The first closure was thrown out and the case reopened after The Trace and BuzzFeed News asked questions about the evidence. Police had had leads on three suspects, but abruptly stopped working the case after two weeks, then pinned the crime on a dead man.

The other closed case was the murder for which Little was convicted. He had been sentenced to life in prison. He had no prior violent crime charges on his record.

“That two of the three witnesses claimed to have seen [Little] in two different places shortly after the shooting was an apparent inconsistency in their testimony,” Justice Irma S. Raker wrote in the decision, saying that the trial court had erred by allowing the detective to explain away the flaw “with the imprimatur of an experienced police detective,” despite having no direct knowledge of the chain of events, and that potentially swayed the jury. Raker also noted that no physical evidence linked Little to the murder, and that the third witness only saw a profile of the shooter from a distance.

It’s unclear whether the appellate court’s decision was influenced by The Trace and BuzzFeed News’ story. Nadine Maeser, a court spokeswoman, said judges are only allowed to “consider the appeal based upon the facts as found by the trial court and the law.”

The Baltimore Police did not respond to a request for comment on the decision.

Tonia Cox, the mother of the man Little was convicted of killing, expressed disappointment when told of the reversal in the case. “How could that be?” she asked.

Little himself has been the victim of two shootings, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury and a bullet still lodged behind his left sinus. Both cases remain open.

When told that her son’s conviction had been reversed, Little’s mother, Janice Moses, screamed, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” then cried for several minutes.

Moses didn’t have long to revel in her good news before another one of her children was swept up in Baltimore’s unrelenting gun violence. Early Tuesday morning, she said via text, her younger son Jerrod Stevenson, 27, was shot and wounded in the chest and back.