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After 15 years in prison, man cleared

A Montgomery County man who spent 15 years in prison for murder was cleared of the charge this week after a jury heard new DNA evidence and emotional testimony from the defendant himself.

A lawyer for Jermaine Arrington also argued that police and prosecutors picked the wrong man from the start - that it was one of his friends who stabbed Paul Simmons in the chest during a chaotic, night-time fight between two groups as a cookout was ending near Aspen Hill in 1994.

Now a free man living in Montgomery County, Arrington will look for full-time work, his lawyer, Samantha Sandler, said after the verdict.

"He is not bitter, but he wants this to be over," she said. "He doesn't want to think about it one more day."

Prosecutors said they would not bring charges against anyone else in the case, citing the witnesses who originally fingered Arrington and the length of time since the slaying.The setback was a rare loss for prosecutors on a Montgomery County murder charge.

"It was a tough case. We respect the jury's verdict," said Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Chaikin.

Arrington was acquitted after about two hours of deliberations. Sandler said she spoke with jurors afterwards, and they told her the witnesses who implicated Arrington were not credible. "They didn't give them much weight," she said.

Arrington's first trial, held in 1995, centered on a melee that broke out near a sidewalk after someone from one group bumped into someone from another group. Two witnesses said they saw Arrington stab Simmons.Three witnesses said they heard Arrington tell Simmons he stabbed him.

"Yeah ... that's right. I shanked you with my butterfly," Arrington said after the stabbing, referring to a kind of knife, according to witness Erica Smith during the 1995 trial.

Even back then, though, there wasn't agreement on who stabbed Simmons.Two people from the party said the killer wore his hair in braids, as did the original police report. Arrington didn't have braids in his hair at the time. None of the witnesses who implicated Arrington had met him before the party.

But prosecutors in 1995 were aided by testimony from a forensic chemist, who said that enzyme tests showed that bloodstains found on Arrington's sweatpants were "consistent with the blood type of the victim," according to court records.

The jury convicted Arrington of second-degree murder.

At his sentencing hearing, he spoke about the victim's mother, Darlene Simmons, who by coincidence had tried to help Arrington stay out of trouble when she was an assistant principal at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg. Arrington said he didn't know that her son was stabbed until after the party.

"When I found out that this was her son that was killed that night, I didn't know how to react," Arrington told the judge in 1995. Referring to Darlene Simmons, he added: "I didn't know how to take it because I knew that I hurt somebody that I cared about."

Arrington was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

He and his lawyers set about on his appeal. Citing flaws in the original trial, they obtained a court order to have the bloodstain from the sweatpants subjected to more exacting, DNA testing. The results showed the blood didn't come from the victim.

After rounds of legal maneuvering, a new trial was ordered, and started Oct. 18.

Prosecutors called to the stand the witnesses who said they saw Arrington stab Paul Simmons or heard him bragging about it. Prosecutors also played a recording of Arrington's remarks at his 1995 sentencing, arguing the remarks showed that Arrington thought he was guilty.

Sandler called Arrington, who stands 6-foot-4, to the witness stand, in part so he could explain the remarks he made during the sentencing. He told jurors he blamed himself for starting the fight.

"I loved Ms. Simmons. I looked up to her," he said from the stand on Oct. 22. "She was like a guardian to me."

"If it wasn't for me, those guys wouldn't have even been there," he said. "I drove them to that party. I pretty much started the fight that led to all this happening. But I didn't stab Paul. ... I didn't even know Paul was there."

Paul Simmons's mother, Darlene Simmons, watched from the courtroom gallery. She said on Thursday that prosecutors did all they could, but she was disappointed with the verdict: "The fact that this man is walking free in this community bothers me ... The feeling is that we were cheated."

During the trial, Arrington's attorney, Sandler, was able to bolster her point that the killer wore his hair in a distinctive style that Arrington didn't wear.

"Three people -- three people the night this crime occurred --said the person who did it had cornrows," Sandler said in her closing argument.

She highlighted a photograph taken during the 1994 gathering -- inside the house, early in the party - that showed her client sitting on a sofa and clearly not having any braids or cornrows in his hair.

Playing up the DNA findings, Sandler said there was "not a shred of scientific evidence" linking Arrington to Simmons's death.

"We know through DNA testing that the victim's blood was not on Mr. Arrington's sweatpants," she said. ".... Jermaine Arrington is innocent."

-- Dan Morse

By Dan Morse  | October 29, 2010; 3:25 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Morse, Montgomery  
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Hmmmmm, I am not sure about this one. I guess there is room for reasonable doubt. The prosecutors do not care because they undoubtedly feel that 15 years is sufficient time for Second Degree Murder. It wasn't premeditated.

Posted by: darrren12000 | October 29, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

More prosecutor misconduct without consequence.

Posted by: jckdoors | October 29, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I am not sure this was misconduct. The article does not state that prosecutors withheld any evidence from the defense. If all of the inconsistent testimony came into the first trial, I would have voted to acquit. But if you hear 3 people ID the defendant, it's hard not to convict. The DNA evidence didn't really prove him guilty. It was "consistent" with the victim's blood, but this is not conclusive. The jury should have been more careful the first time around.

Posted by: darrren12000 | October 29, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

This case should have never gone to trial 15 yrs ago. There was enough evidence to convict Mr. Arrington....RESONABLE DOUBT was the reason Mr. Arrington is free today.

Posted by: bobby20 | October 29, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

I hope he makes it but 15 years with thugs and learning how to be one of them if you are not is a tough pill to swallow. Not to mention having to be a girl and do all sorts of things to survive for 15 years. His family and so called friends probably abandoned him after all that time. No wife or kids. She left and kids grew up without him. He can still make it if he trusts in his Creator, which brought him to this point in life. There is a reason for everything. Something positive will come out of this. Hopefully a big lawsuit will make up for those years if he can invest it wisely.

Posted by: xrcise | October 30, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

at 6'4", aint so sure he was a 'punk' in jail

Posted by: mloaks | November 1, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

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