Former Baltimore mayor urges prosecutor to free murder convict

UPDATE:  Michael Austin was exonerated and released in 2002.

March 21, 2001

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke asked the city's top prosecutor to help free a man he says was wrongly convicted of murder and has served 26 years of a life sentence.

``The first time I read the facts in this one, it was clear to me that some court ought to take another look at this,'' Schmoke said. ``When I read it even more closely, I became convinced that a terrible wrong had been done to this man. This man did not commit that crime.''

Michael Austin, now 52, was convicted of killing Ray Kellam, a security guard shot during an April 1974 robbery of a Crown Food Market.

The former prosecutor who tried the case, Joseph Wase, has said recent revelations have convinced him that he should not have tried the case.

A business card police said was found in his wallet, which had the name of an accomplice written on it, and the testimony of a clerk in the store, Jackie Robinson, were key pieces of evidence in the trial.

The card and the testimony, however, have come under question.

Prosecutors admitted after Austin's conviction that the alleged accomplice was not involved in the killing.

Robinson's family, meanwhile, has also come forward to say he was not a civic-minded college student, as prosecutors told jurors during trial, but a drug dealer and user whose identification of the killer changed shortly after he was charged by police in another case.

One of Robinson's brothers, John Robinson, told a private investigator that the witness confided to him several times that he had helped convict the wrong man, The (Baltimore) Sun reported Tuesday.

Robinson, who died in 1997 of a heroin overdose, originally told police the killer was 5-foot-8 and about 140 pounds. Later, according to the lead detective in the case, Robinson said the killer was taller than 6 feet, and he picked Austin from a series of six police photos. Austin is 6-foot-5, 210 pounds.

Larry A. Nathans, a Baltimore attorney hired by a nonprofit group to represent Austin, said he plans to ask a judge this week to consider new evidence about the card and about the eyewitness. Schmoke said he was also asked to look into the case by the group, Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J.-based group.

Schmoke, himself a former state and federal prosecutor, said he met with Sharon A. H. May, State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy's deputy, and with Jessamy to discuss the case with her. Both prosecutors said that they would wait until court papers are filed before deciding what to do with the case, Schmoke said.

Messages left at Jessamy's office were not returned Tuesday.

The former mayor said once court papers are filed, he will again urge them not to oppose Austin's lawyer, The Sun reported Tuesday. The newspaper said in a lengthy piece published on Sunday that it reviewed the case after being contacted by Centurion.

``I feel very strongly (that) it's in the interest of justice to have a judge review this matter again,'' Schmoke told The Sun. ``And it would be in the interest of justice for the state's attorney not to object to a new review of the Austin matter.''

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice