Federal judge in Baltimore rebukes state judges while overturning conviction in 1997 murder

Baltimore murder convict Richard Nicolas*, who was found guilty of the 1997 murder of his 2-year-old daughter, Aja, has been seeking federal review of his conviction since 2006, claiming it was wrongfully obtained. On March 30, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett ruled in Nicolas' favor, overturning state-court judges' opinions that his conviction should stand.

Bennett has ordered a new trial for Nicolas, because statements given to Baltimore police by two witnesses, who both said they heard gunshots at about the time and place Nicolas said Aja had been shot—which bolstered Nicolas' version of events, while undermining the state's case—were illegally withheld from his defense.

"There was absolutely no basis for the state courts to conclude that the suppressed statements conflicted with [Nicolas'] theory of the case," Bennett wrote in his opinion, adding that "it is clear that no fair-minded jurist could have concluded that the suppressed statements were not material" to the case.

"In sum," Bennett concluded, because "the State put on a circumstantial case in which much of their evidence was disputed," and since the suppressed witness statements touched "on the critical point of the State's theory—the time of Aja's shooting," they were "likely to have an effect on the outcome" of the trial. The result, he wrote, was "a verdict unworthy of any confidence."

*An earlier version of this post misspelled Richard Nicolas' surname. It is Nicolas, not Nicholas. City Paper regrets the error.

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