Willie Billinger lingered for five minutes at the home detention company on East Joppa Road in Towson.

Moments earlier, Billinger turned in his ankle bracelet, a remnant of his winding journey through the criminal justice system in Baltimore. His sister, Donnie, was waiting for him. But he wanted to soak in his new freedom.

“I felt like a bird outside — that I could just go,” Billinger, 47, of Baltimore, recalled in a recent interview.

“I walked outside of that office, and I realized at that point, I was a man that was entered back into society,” he added. “And I was free.”

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In 2018, Billinger was found guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to 60 years in prison for a crime he insists that he did not commit.

For almost seven years, Billinger pursued, and eventually won, his freedom. Along the way, he brought up allegations of police misconduct, asserted that assistant state’s attorneys failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and won a new trial. When a judge ruled that it would be a “miscarriage of justice” to allow prosecutors to replay the testimony of their star witness at a second trial, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office dropped the charges.

Prosecutors emphasized that they did not dismiss the case against Billinger because they believed that he was innocent. They still trusted their witnesses. Detectives simply could not find one of them.

“Where is there any indication that Mr. Billinger did not commit this crime?” said Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Stock, one of two prosecutors who tried the case. “Because a jury convicted him of doing it.”

‘I know a killer when I see one’

His journey began on March 14, 2017, when Baltimore Police found the decomposed bodies of Earline “Smiley” Thomas and Howard “Mike” Martin inside their apartment on St. Paul Street, between East 25th and East 24th streets, in Old Goucher. They were both 53.

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Police interviewed witnesses and obtained an arrest warrant for Billinger.

The exterior of 2412 St. Paul St. in Baltimore is seen on on May 30, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

By the time the U.S. Marshals Service went to pick him up, Billinger was jail in an unrelated case at Dauphin County Prison in Central Pennsylvania. Law enforcement took him to the Baltimore Police Department homicide unit.

Billinger told detectives that he had brought the couple drugs to sell but adamantly denied committing the double homicide.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, like you said, right?” Detective Julian Min said to Billinger during the interrogation. “I know a killer when I see one.”

When he was held at the Metropolitan Transition Center, Billinger said, he dwelled every day on his innocence. It drove him crazy. Months and months passed. “You just feel like you a slave,” he said. “You locked up and confined.”

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His trial — including jury selection and deliberations — lasted less than four days.

In her opening statement, Assistant State’s Attorney Natalie Amato said Thomas and Martin were hanging out, smoking and drinking with people at their apartment.

As the night progressed, Billinger, aka “FuMan,” got “angrier and angrier.” That’s because he felt that people were not listening to him when he was talking about his son who died, Amato alleged.

Later, Billinger, she asserted, accused Thomas and Martin of stealing his drugs.

“He was angry with them, and he brutally assaulted them and killed them,” Amato said.

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The case centered on the testimony of Tyrone “Ty” Rice, who claimed that he witnessed part of that confrontation. Other witnesses put Rice and Billinger in the apartment.

Billinger smacked Thomas in the face with an open hand, Rice testified. She “just took it” at first, but then fought back.

Next, Billinger “got into it a little bit” with Martin, Rice testified. Thomas, he said, “just stood there.”

During the fight, Billinger, he testified, was holding a “pole or a stick or something” — maybe a table leg — and hit Martin with it, knocking him over.

At one point, Rice testified, Billinger had ordered Thomas and Martin to take off their clothes. Martin eventually got dressed.

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Then, Billinger assaulted Thomas — who was still naked — a second time, Rice testified. Billinger, he said, then took her knife, which one witness testified she carried “like American Express.”

“When he started stabbing her,” Rice testified, “that’s when I exited.”

Rice later picked Billinger out of a photo array and testified that he did not call 911 because he was scared.

He said he was not promised anything for his testimony. Rice said he came forward because he “felt it was the right thing.”

Billinger claimed that he was at a drug treatment center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but could not confirm his account.

His cellmate, Ian McCarthy, testified that he believed that Billinger was innocent and agreed to write a letter for him.

In the letter, McCarthy pinned the crime on Rice.

“Innocent people don’t put together fake evidence,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said. “That’s a sign of people that have something to hide.”

Investigators swabbed suspected blood in the apartment building. They discovered DNA on the banister in the hallway on the first floor, outside the apartment where the double homicide took place.

Baltimore Police found the decomposed bodies of Earline “Smiley” Thomas and Howard “Mike” Martin inside their apartment on St. Paul Street, between East 25th and East 24th streets, in Old Goucher, on March 14, 2017. They were both 53. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Police uploaded it to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, and got a hit. Except not to Billinger.

The DNA profile matched a man who went by the names Kevin Jones and Corey Wright.

At trial, Min testified that he showed a photo of that man — though he did not provide it to either the state or defense — to witnesses and eliminated him as a suspect. Prosecutors noted that the DNA was found in a common area, and police could not find him to confirm the match.

When the jury went back to deliberate, Billinger said, his heart was pounding. He was hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

The worst came.

Billinger said he knew he was going to prison. He just did not know for how long. For about three days, he laid down in his cell and could not eat.

At his sentencing, Leslie Merritt, Thomas’ daughter, described her mother as her friend and protector as well as an “amazing person.”

Thomas was funny and kind. She loved singing and dancing as well as her family and friends. Though she had her flaws, that did not take away from who she was as a person, Merritt said.

“I hope that every time he sleeps and blinks and breathes, he hears her and sees her and remembers her smile and remembers her laugh,” Merritt said.

Assistant Public Defender Michael Cooper, Billinger’s attorney, said his client was deeply saddened but maintained that he had nothing to do with the killings.

“Your honor,” said Cooper, before Billinger again professed his innocence, “what we have here, I truly believe, is a miscarriage of justice.”

Circuit Judge Melissa M. Phinn sentenced Billinger to 60 years in prison. He instantly became depressed.

“It’s crazy,” he recalled thinking. “I’m locked up for something I didn’t do.”

“It’s crazy,” Billinger recalled thinking after he was sentenced in 2018 in Baltimore Circuit Court on two counts of second-degree murder to serve 60 years in prison. “I’m locked up for something I didn’t do.” (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

‘God sent me an angel’

When he arrived at Jessup Correctional Institution, Billinger said, he met a prisoner who, for a fee — $40 per motion — promised to work on his case.

Billinger became disenchanted with the jailhouse lawyer after everything that he filed was denied. Determined to learn the language of the courts, Billinger started going to the law library.

That’s where he would eventually come across the list.

In 2019, Marilyn Mosby, who was Baltimore state’s attorney at the time, testified before the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing that her office had created a list of about 305 police officers with integrity issues so prosecutors could notify defense attorneys. She eventually released the document in 2022 after a court decision.

Min — the lead investigator in his case — was on the list.

“It blew my mind,” Billinger said.

Billinger wrote a letter to Assistant Public Defender Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, whose name he saw in an article about the list.

Levi took on his case with Assistant Public Defender Nora Fakhri. “God,” Billinger said, “sent me an angel.”

‘This is Baltimore City, this is the murder capital of the country!’

They obtained internal affairs records that detailed allegations that Min had falsely arrested a maintenance worker outside an office in Mount Vernon in 2003 and filed a motion for a new trial.

In a statement of probable cause, Min alleged that the maintenance worker, Justin Staley, could neither answer for whom he worked nor provide any paperwork.

Staley, though, swore in his own affidavit that he talked to his supervisor, waited for law enforcement and explained that he forgot to disable the alarm after it automatically reset at midnight. He reported that he called his boss — but police officers refused to take his phone or speak with his employer.

Min, he said, was not satisfied with his Virginia driver’s license and asked for a pay stub, which he offered to get from his apartment across the street. When Staley expressed that their questions were becoming a waste of time, Min, he reported, stepped out of a police cruiser and said, “This is Baltimore City, this is the murder capital of the country!”

Then, Min handcuffed him. Police later took him to the Baltimore Central Booking & Intake Center, and prosecutors eventually dropped the case.

Internal affairs interviewed witnesses, obtained alarm records and retrieved call logs that corroborated Staley’s account.

“They were determined in putting me in jail and teaching me a lesson,” Staley said in an interview.

Records indicate that allegations of inappropriate detention, false report and false statement against Min were sustained, and the disciplinary recommendation was termination. The latter two findings were blacked out but still readable.

Instead, Min received a letter of reprimand, five-day suspension, loss of leave and involuntary transfer.

“Mr. Billinger is sitting inside a prison cell looking at the rest of his natural life in prison,” Levi argued in court. “If we are going to impose what we believe is the most harsh sentence that we can impose in our society, it ought and better to be fair.”

“It’s very easy for all of us to argue this and at the end of the day walk out to our car and drive home,” she later continued. “He was not given a fair trial and he is entitled to a new one.”

In an interview, Min described himself as a rookie at the time — he’d been on the force for less than three years — and noted that it was the era of “zero tolerance” under Mayor Martin O’Malley.

Min said the policy was “make the arrest, figure it out later.” His supervisors told him the complaint was “no big deal.”

“They’re going to always bring that up,” Min said. “If I knew what I know now when I was a senior detective, I would have never agreed to sign anything about internal affairs.”

Today, Min is on the “Do Not Call” list “due to an incident in which he admitted to misconduct,” said James Bentley, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, in an email.

Bentley said the office could not provide additional information. “Oh really? I did not know,” said Min, who retired in 2023. “I can’t say much about how they came to a conclusion.”

Billinger wrote a letter to Assistant Public Defender Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, while he was incarcerated. She took on his case. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

‘A fresh start’

Stock, the assistant state’s attorney, opposed the request for a new trial for Billinger.

Even if the judge found the allegations of police misconduct constituted newly discovered evidence, Stock asserted, there had to be a substantial or significant possibility that would have changed the outcome.

At the time, Stock said, she did not herself have the internal affairs records.

Min, she contended, agreed to be disciplined for conduct unbecoming of a police officer instead of going to a trial board. He did not have findings for perjury, Stock said.

“The fact that they weren’t properly redacted doesn’t mean that they are still in his file,” Stock argued in court.

But Levi responded that there was no proof to support that position.

In 2023, Phinn granted the motion for a new trial and ruled that the state had clearly violated Brady v. Maryland, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion from 1963 that requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory information to the defense.

Phinn wrote in her opinion that there was “no doubt” the internal affairs files were relevant to Min’s credibility and a “substantial possibility” existed that the outcome of the trial would have been different.

Billinger said Levi called him with the news. He said he shed a single tear.

“It was like a fresh start,” he said. “A breath of fresh air.”

‘If he does well’

Because Billinger filed complaints with the Attorney Grievance Commission against Stock, Assistant State’s Attorney Paul Crowley took over the case.

On the witness stand, Rice said he was not promised anything for his testimony. But Levi came across information that she suggested raised questions about that claim.

Three weeks before he testified against Billinger, Rice pleaded guilty to burglary in Baltimore County Circuit Court for breaking into Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church in 2017 and going through the pastor’s chambers.

Rice apologized and reported that he’d been addicted to heroin since he was 19 or 20.

His attorney, Joe Pappafotis, noted that there was a warrant detainer for Rice from a drug court in Baltimore. Rice, he noted, was set to testify in a case.

Pappafotis said his client was facing 10 or 12 years in prison on a violation of probation. “But then what happens to him as a result of that case where he’s supposed to testify is anyone’s guess. I mean, my suspicion is that if he does well then, uh —” he said.

Two weeks after his testimony, Rice was sentenced to four years in prison, according to court records. Prosecutors said they provided his rap sheet but stated that they did not rerun his criminal history before the trial.

Levi was defending a client accused of a double fatal stabbing.

That’s why Levi said it was shocking that the state possessed information that Thomas had stabbed Martin in 2015, causing internal organ damage that required surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She pleaded guilty in 2016 to second-degree assault in exchange for no additional jail time, court records indicate, plus three years’ probation.

Prosecutors assert that information is not exculpatory evidence and did not need to be provided.

Stock said the Attorney Grievance Commission twice did not find any indication of wrongdoing to investigate. Levi, she said, is relying on the word of her client “who was convicted in these murders” and has been “papering the state’s attorney’s office since the day of his conviction with gibberish and nonsense” — including unsuccessful petitions for a writ of actual innocence.

“I have spent over 18 years in this office building up my reputation,” Stock said. “And I can say with confidence that there is not a single judge on the bench or 99% of the defense attorneys that I have dealt with that would say anything negative about the way I handle myself in court, in trial and in preparing for trial, including sending discovery out.”

‘I don’t see how there could ever be a fair trial in this case’

Meanwhile, Crowley, the new assistant state’s attorney, was preparing for the second trial — but he had a problem. Police reported that they could not find their star witness.

Crowley twice asked a judge to allow the state to replay the testimony of Rice at the retrial.

Circuit Judge Ronald A. Silkworth denied that request on Jan. 29 before the second trial was set to begin.

“I don’t see how there could ever be a fair trial in this case,” said Silkworth, who added that it would be a “miscarriage of justice” if prosecutors were allowed to replay the testimony of Rice, because certain areas of cross-examination had been “forever lost.”

Silkworth stated that the defense brought up “a number of other issues that are troubling to this court.”

Following the ruling, Crowley moved to dismiss the charges. “Absent that ruling,” he said in an interview, “there would’ve been a trial that day.”

Billinger — who had been recently released on home detention — was free.

‘It’s destroyed everything’

Since being released, Billinger said he’s been enjoying his freedom and spending time with his children. “It’s been wonderful,” he said. “It’s unexplainable.”

Mandy Miliman and Howard Miliman, Billinger’s civil attorneys, have sent a notice of intent to sue to Baltimore City Solicitor Ebony Thompson.

Billinger said he’s trying to secure housing and move forward. His mother, Wanda, died when he was imprisoned. He said he’s had to start from scratch.

The state’s attorney said the case is closed, but prosecutors will review any new information that they receive.

Reflecting on his arrest and incarceration, Billinger said, “It’s destroyed everything.”