By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Mar. 21, 2007
Just before 4 p.m. on March 15, as a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury was preparing to render its verdict in the double-murder case against Anthony Jerome Miller, prosecutor Sharon Holback turned to the victims’ family and friends, who were assembled in the courtroom, and said, “Let’s hope for something poetic with a verdict on the Ides of March.” The jurors did indeed hand down a poetic verdict, convicting Miller of two counts of second-degree murder, nearly four years after the April 2003 night when 22-year-old Sean Wisniewski and 31-year-old Jason Convertino were shot to death in Convertino’s Upper Fells Point apartment.
Judge Robert Kershaw, who presided over the nine-day trial, scheduled sentencing for June 8, and each murder count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years. But the jury also acquitted Miller of eight other charges arising from the state’s theory that he went to Convertino’s apartment intending to rob, shoot, and kill the victims. If they had believed the large body of evidence that the crime was premeditated, as the state contended, the jurors would have found Miller guilty of first-degree murder and the other felonies, and he’d be facing two life sentences–and then some.
Miller, 31, was charged last January, after Baltimore Police detective William Ritz took over the lapsed investigation as a cold case in late 2005. Ritz quickly developed evidence that included Miller’s DNA on a latex glove left at the murder scene, a map of the movements of Miller’s cell phone at the time of the crime, business records indicating Miller robbed Convertino, and testimony from Convertino’s next-door neighbor, who was first interviewed by police two and a half years after the slayings.
After the verdict, the two sides made the usual statements. “I believe my client was not guilty, and we’re going to continue to fight to prove his innocence,” said Miller’s attorney, Paul Polansky, who promised to file an appeal. State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Joseph Sviatko said, “We’ll obviously ask for the maximum” sentence. Holback announced that she was “very happy” with the outcome.
But Convertino’s mother, Pam Morgan of Binghamton, N.Y., says she is disappointed that the jurors didn’t hand down convictions for first-degree murder, gun crimes, and robbery. “I guess I should be grateful for something,” Morgan says of the guilty findings the day after the verdict. “But how do they think the bullets got in the kids’ heads?”
The autopsy revealed that Convertino’s fatal back-of-the-head shot was accompanied by two others, one also to his head and the other to his right arm. Wisniewski died of a single gunshot to the head. A firearms expert testified that the bullets were fired from a .38- or a .357-caliber handgun.
Morgan sees Miller’s conviction as partial justice not only because the verdict wasn’t as comprehensive as she would have liked, but because she remains convinced that Miller did not act alone. She intends to pursue her theory that the killings were a conspiracy, as she has since shortly after the crime. “It’s not really over for me,” Morgan says. “I have to say I’ll definitely not be sitting back on this.”
Scott Henry, a prosecution witness and Wisniewski’s friend and employer, agrees that Miller’s prosecution addresses only a part of the crime’s complexity. “I hope this is only the beginning, because you and I both know there is a lot more to this [case],” Henry told City Paper after his hourlong testimony on March 6. Neither Wisniewski’s family nor the jurors could be reached for comment in time for this article.
Trial testimony described the nightlife milieu in which the murders occurred. Wisniewski worked as Henry’s assistant and handled radio programming for Buzzlife Productions, a concert promoter based in Washington, D.C. At the time, Buzzlife held events on Saturday nights at Redwood Trust, the historic downtown bank-turned-nightclub where Convertino was general manager. Shortly before the murders, Miller had worked briefly at Redwood Trust on the security staff. Convertino worked for Redwood Trust owner Nicholas Piscatelli, but at the time of the murders he was arranging to leave Piscatelli and take the gigs he was booking at Redwood Trust to Bohager’s, another venue that has since closed.
The state’s case was that Miller was hardly employed, working itinerantly at a car wash and as a security guard at a car dealership, and was marrying Tarsha Fitzgerald, a successful older woman, so he needed money to pay for their honeymoon in Mexico. With greed as his motive, the state tried to prove that Miller gunned down Convertino (Wisniewski was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time), stole and pawned his laptop, and fraudulently used his credit card to pay the travel agency. Holback painted Miller as a cunning and deceptive charmer who fooled a lot of people, including Convertino and Fitzgerald. Holback described the latter as Miller’s “living victim.”
Polansky’s defense of Miller was composed solely of four character witnesses, including New Psalmist Baptist Church Bishop Walter Thomas, who testified that the defendant was a religious man who would never commit such atrocities. But Polansky also cross-examined the state’s witnesses in an effort to suggest a vague, alternate theory of the case to jurors: that Piscatelli, not Miller, had a motive to kill Convertino, who was in the process of taking high-profile hip-hop events away from the Redwood Trust. Investigators, Polansky stated in his closing argument, “rushed to judgment” in deciding early in the investigation that Miller was the killer, and suffered from “tunnel vision,” so they “didn’t look at Nick Piscatelli a little more carefully.”
Piscatelli testified as a prosecution witness for 45 minutes on the second day of the trial, March 6. Holback asked him to look at the jury and answer a series of questions about whether he killed Convertino, or had Miller kill him. Piscatelli repeatedly answered “no” to the questions. He also stated that he doesn’t know Miller: “I thought I might recognize him today,” Piscatelli said from the witness stand, “but I do not.” Piscatelli told City Paper for an article last year (“Late Discovery,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 6) that Miller asked him for money to pay for the honeymoon, which Piscatelli declined to lend. “I didn’t really know” Miller, he said then.
“The truth is in the evidence,” Polansky said during the trial, arguing that “this was an execution” and “not a robbery at all,” and that “what happened here is that Jason Convertino crossed the wrong people.”
In addition, Polansky pointed out that Holback made Miller out to be “so slick, so smart,” yet at the same time the evidence against Miller attests to a remarkable level of stupidity. It’s as if Miller “wanted to get caught,” Polansky said, because he “leaves the only evidence that he was there . . . right on the dead man’s bed,” where the glove containing Miller’s DNA was recovered. The evidence also showed that Miller left his fingerprints all over the fruits of the alleged robbery by pawning the laptop at a shop Miller regularly patronized, producing his driver’s license to validate the transaction, and using Convertino’s credit card after the murders.
“Either Anthony Miller did it,” Polansky told jurors, “or somebody went to an awful lot of trouble to make you believe he did it.” Judging by the verdict, the jurors decided Miller did indeed do it–though they didn’t buy the state’s version of how the deed was done.