The murder trial of Draquan Smith had been set to begin in Baltimore, and prosecutors wanted to reschedule it because the assistant state’s attorney assigned to the case was out sick.
The state had opposed an order to have a different assistant state’s attorney handle jury selection as to not delay the case. When a judge denied a second request to postpone the trial, or, at a minimum, pause the court proceedings for 24 hours, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges of first-degree murder and use of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence against Smith.
Prosecutors then obtained a new indictment against him — in essence, getting the continuance that they wanted in the first place.
Now, Smith’s attorney, Latoya Francis-Williams, said she’s “pretty perturbed” at what happened and alleges that prosecutors pulled the maneuver to buy more time.
“It’s one thing to parade around as if you are doing your job. It’s another thing to actually protect the constitutional rights of everyone,” said Francis-Williams, who added that she will be filing a motion to dismiss. “They’re simply dragging this young man for the sake of looking tough on crime.”
But State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said his office believes that the judge violated the law and stated that he has an obligation to ensure that justice is fairly implemented across the board.
Assistant state’s attorneys, Bates said, analyze cases, talk to witnesses and gain an understanding of what kind of jury they want to select. To have a different prosecutor jump in at the last second, he said, is “beyond unfair.”
Bates said he did not fault Francis-Williams for vigorously advocating for her client. That’s her job, he said.
In his career, Bates said he’s never seen anything like what unfolded in the case. In Maryland, he said, the case law is clear that prosecutors are not “fungible.” He said it’s important to treat them as human beings.
“For us, we did not feel in any way shape, form or fashion that our request was out of line at all,” Bates said. “We only asked for 24 hours,” he later added.
Smith, 22, of Southwest Baltimore, is charged in the fatal shooting of Joshua Camara on Northshire Drive near Hinsdale Drive in South Baltimore on March 27, 2022.
Camara died more than three months later. He was 21.
Two men, Andre Hurley Jr. and Kyrek Brooks, told Baltimore Police that they both possessed guns, followed Camara and beat him up. That’s because Camara owed money to Brooks, prosecutors reported.
Three men — one of whom police claim is Smith — then followed Camara. Five gunshots can be heard on surveillance video, prosecutors allege.
Hurley, 21, of Baltimore County, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 18. Meanwhile, Brooks, 21, of Pikesville, is set to return to court on charges of first- and second-degree assault and related offenses on Nov. 29.
Smith was supposed to stand trial before Circuit Judge Gregory Sampson on July 28 when Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Stock asked for a postponement.
Stock told the judge that the assistant state’s attorney assigned to the case, Paul Crowley, contacted her earlier in the morning and reported that was on the way to the doctor because he felt sick.
Smith, she noted, was awaiting sentencing in an unrelated case and faced at least a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison without parole. So a postponement “would not unduly incarcerate him longer than necessary,” Stock said.
But Francis-Williams vigorously objected to the delay.
Sampson referred the case to the judge-in-charge of the criminal docket, Melissa M. Phinn, who has the power to postpone trials.
Francis-Williams again opposed the continuance, noting that her client had been incarcerated for almost one year awaiting trial. She said she also had a witness lined up to testify who spoke English as a second language and was difficult to get in touch with in the first place.
“Well, can I do anything about an attorney that’s ill?” Phinn said. “I cannot make him come in here, he may be contagious to all of us.”
That’s when Francis-Williams suggested having an assistant state’s attorney fill in for jury selection and pretrial motions.
Stock reported that Crowley had been diagnosed with the flu and should be back at work on Aug. 1. But Phinn said she tended to agree with Francis-Williams about having a different prosecutor handle jury selection.
“Your honor, I understand the court’s suggestion,” Stock said. “That’s not my preference. It’s not Mr. Crowley’s preference. If that’s what the court requests of the state, I can have myself or somebody else available to select the jury.”
Phinn directed them to report to Circuit Judge Jennifer B. Schiffer on July 31 for jury selection. Opening statements and testimony would not start until Aug. 1.
Later in the afternoon, Deputy State’s Attorney Tom Donnelly sent an email to Francis-Williams and Schiffer as a courtesy to inform them that Bates had “instructed the attorneys in this office that there will not be a prosecutor present” to pick a jury.
Following some more back-and-forth over email, Donnelly and Chief Operating Officer Catherine Flynn appeared before Schiffer on July 31.
Donnelly asked the judge to postpone the trial or, at a minimum, delay the case for 24 hours. Schiffer sent the case back to Phinn, who had court personnel replay video of the previous hearing.
The Maryland Supreme Court has recognized the important interest of having the same assistant state’s attorney handle a case from beginning to end, Donnelly said. He said he has never seen a prosecutor pick a jury for a different prosecutor — especially involuntarily.
Stock, he said, did not want to argue with the judge and showed deference to the court.
“Miss Stock is a seasoned prosecutor,” Phinn said. “Miss Stock has been before me many times for various reasons. If she had any hesitancy about it, she could’ve said, ‘Well, judge, give me a minute and let me speak to my front office.’”
Phinn questioned why she should not hold the state to its prior commitment. Donnelly said he did not think that Stock made one, noting that she had expressed how it was not the preference of the state’s attorney’s office to have a different prosecutor select a jury.
“Go to Judge Schiffer. And I don’t care who picks the jury,” Phinn said. “But someone from the state will pick this jury today.”
Next, Donnelly told Schiffer that he had been in contact with Bates and the Maryland Office of the Attorney General.
The continuity of a prosecutor handling a case from beginning to end, he said, is a “significant interest that is worth protecting.” Though Donnelly said the state did not want to do so, it was dismissing the charges.
A grand jury days later returned a new indictment against Smith, according to court records.
Megan Coleman, a partner at MarcusBonsib LLC in Greenbelt who’s not involved in the case, said she believes that there were two viable alternatives to prosecutors dismissing the charges and then obtaining a new indictment.
First, Coleman said, a different assistant state’s attorney could have handled jury selection. Second, she said, the judge could have delayed the trial for 24 hours until the prosecutor assigned to case returned.
“They would’ve protected the state’s interest. They would’ve protected the defendant’s interest,” Coleman said. “Based on my experience, it seems like there could’ve been some real viable alternatives to the dismissal.”
If the defense files a motion to dismiss, Coleman said, the judge will have to consider several factors, including what the prejudice is to the defendant.
Smith remains incarcerated and is set to appear back in court on Dec. 13.