Good Times: Dion Fearon in Baltimore, asking all about Jean Brown

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 21, 2019

Yesterday at Studio 4 in downtown Baltimore, producer Dion Fearon asked me questions about lifer Jean Brown, the Baltimore-based Jamaican who in 2009 ordered and oversaw the tortuous murder and dismemberment of Michael Knight, Brown’s friend and co-conspirator in a $1M-a-month Mexican cannabis-trafficking operation. Knight’s body, which was sawed to pieces, packaged, and tossed into various dumpsters in the Baltimore area, was never recovered.

I’d first written about Brown in late 2010, when a search warrant in the case dropped at U.S. District Court in Maryland, and ended up writing about her two more times. Fearon is now putting together a documentary about Brown, and managed to track me down just in time for me to go back over my records and writings quickly in preparation for the shoot.

We covered a lot of ground involving Brown, but Fearon also asked me about how the Brown conspiracy compared to other major pot-trafficking cases I’d covered. That prompted me to recall that the very building we sat in was once part of the real-estate holdings of Jeremy Landsman, who played a role in the globe-trotting, jet-setting cannabis conspiracy headed by Matt Nicka, and that next door used to be the location of Sonar, Dan McIntosh‘s nightclub that prosecutors contended, unsuccessfully, was part of the scheme.

When I arrived at the studio just prior to the appointed time, former federal prosecutor Stefan Cassella, who led the prosecution of Brown, was seated in front the cameras. When we were introduced, he was incredibly pleasant – considering all the words I’ve written about his work in Maryland over the years, much of which was critical reporting. There were stories about seizing assets from South Mountain Creamery, prosecuting online gambling and synthetic drugs, a forfeiture case marred by agents’ creating a faked drug-dog certification in litigation, and an occasion when Cassella drew the ire of a veteran federal judge – and that’s just what I can readily recall.

That’s Cassella on the right. Photo: Dion Fearon

When my interview was over, Fearon and I spoke about other stories, including Querida Lewis – Fearon brought her up her name, asking if I had heard of her – and Sean Hinton, the Baltimore police trainee whose body was found floating off Manhattan in 1992, and whose son Ronald Hinton was later convicted, on shaky evidence and a controversial confession, of raping and murdering a four-year-old girl.

I had presumed Fearon was a Californian – which she is – but it turns out she grew up in Baltimore. I predict we’ll be crossing paths again, and look forward to seeing what comes of her Brown biopic.


Missing Evidence: Possibly Exculpatory Documents Not Given to Defense Team in Child Rapist/Murderer Case

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Aug. 6, 2008

“Absolutely not,” Sandra Goldthorpe says when asked if she’s seen an annotated, front-and-back diagram of a human form, describing the head-to-knee external injuries to 4-year-old Ja’niya Ebony Williams’ body, as observed by the Baltimore medical examiner at her autopsy on June 24, 2006. “That would have been useful to have from the get-go,” she says, because it shows that “there are way too many bruises on her for what Ronald confessed to doing.”

Goldthorpe is talking about her client, Ronald Albert Hinton*, who is serving a life sentence, plus 25 years, for raping and murdering Williams. A Baltimore City jury decided in May that Hinton’s false-confession defense and the prosecutors’ flawed DNA evidence at trial did not raise reasonable doubts about his guilt. Hinton, who was Williams’ baby sitter and had just turned 15 when the child was killed, maintains his innocence and has filed an appeal.

Goldthorpe and her law partner, Janice Bledsoe, are in their downtown law office on July 30, looking at Baltimore Police Department (BPD) records of the investigation that led to Hinton’s conviction. City Paper‘s recent feature article about the case (“Puzzling Evidence,” Feature, July 30) was based largely on these documents, and showed how Hinton’s jury was not privy to available evidence that some of Williams’ many injuries–including bite marks that Hinton confessed to giving her–were described as “old” or “faded” at the time of the June 21, 2006, incident that led to her death several days later. But Hinton’s lawyers say they haven’t seen some of the documents before, which they would have liked to use for his defense at trial since doubts about his guilt could be raised by the existence of prior injuries at the hands of others.

“That’s the first I have heard of that,” Bledsoe says, when shown a detective’s notes of efforts to compare the bite marks on Williams’ body to Hinton’s teeth. BPD homicide detective Todd Corriveau, who attended Williams’ autopsy, had the medical examiner prepare to-scale photographs of the marks with the hope of comparing them to molds of Hinton’s teeth. Corriveau’s notes show that on June 28, 2006, he conferred with an expert, University of Maryland forensic dentist Warren Tewes, who told him a comparison could not be made because the marks lacked the necessary definition.

“I would have called up Tewes,” Goldthorpe says, especially in light of the fact that Corriveau’s notes say that “Tewes provided general, basic information regarding the bite marks on the victim’s skin that may or may not be of relevance” at trial, and that “details” of that information were not included in the notes. “I would want to know more about that,” Goldthorpe says. “And we didn’t get the to-scale photographs of the bite marks, which would have been very helpful” Bledsoe says.

“In fact, I had never seen any of Corriveau’s notes concerning the autopsy,” which showed that the detective described “faded” bite marks on Williams’ buttocks. “I would have wanted to ask him about that when he was on the stand,” Bledsoe says, adding that “I’m a little concerned about [Corriveau] saying [in his notes] there were prior bite marks and then [prosecutors Joanne Stanton and Temmi Rollock] not giving that [information] to us.”

Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Margaret Burns says “prosecutors followed the law and complied with Maryland’s discovery rules and disclosed all evidence” to Hinton’s defense attorneys. Though the office has what’s called an “open file policy,” in which defense attorneys have access to everything the prosecution has, it has nonetheless long been criticized for failures to provide exculpatory information. Bledsoe, in fact, is representing another Baltimore defendant, Kenneth Perry, who won a new murder trial because of the state’s failure to provide exculpatory evidence at his first trial when he was convicted in 2001.

Bledsoe is hesitant to argue, based on what documents she knows she did not have at trial, that Stanton and Rollock failed to provide her with exculpatory evidence, as required. “Is it exculpatory? It’s right on the line,” she asserts. “It might be a cumulative thing,” in which, taken altogether, documentation not provided to the defense could have been used to persuade the jury to have reasonable doubts about Hinton’s guilt.

Hinton confessed to biting Williams, for instance, but the jury knew that DNA recovered from the bite wounds did not come from Hinton; in fact, female DNA was recovered from bite marks on the upper thigh. Thus, the dental expert’s conclusions about the size of the bite marks, as documented in Corriveau’s to-scale photographs, may have been useful to the defense in further suggesting to the jury that Hinton could not have bitten Williams, despite his confession. But Hinton’s lawyers didn’t know about the dental expert, so they didn’t know to explore the possibilities of what he might say in front of a jury.

City Paper attempted to contact Tewes to ask him what he told Corriveau about the photographs of the bite marks. E-mails including detailed questions sent to him and the University of Maryland Dental School media office got no response, and neither did multiple phone messages.

Bledsoe acknowledges that the prosecutors did provide her with some documentation of older injuries on Williams’ body that the jury never saw because she was frustrated in her efforts to elicit corroborating testimony.

“I’m trying to be self-critical,” she says. Bledsoe, despite her evidentiary frustrations, emphasized the prior injury theory in her closing arguments at trial.

In particular, Bledsoe’s files contain documentation that the doctor who cared for Williams at the hospital observed “old bites on chest, and left thigh,” and that one of the medics at the scene of the incident noted “bruises were older” than indicated by Hinton’s interpretation of what injured her–that she had just fallen off the bed.

The doctor’s observations appeared in the search-warrant application in the case that was filed before Hinton’s confession, but not in the one filed afterward, perhaps, Bledsoe suggests, “because his confession was not consistent with old bruises and bite marks,” so the phrase was omitted from the second application. The medic’s comment, Bledsoe continues, were contained in a transcript that was provided to the defense after the start of the trial, so she missed it in the rush to prepare.

Goldthorpe takes a phone call while Bledsoe continues to go through City Paper‘s documents from the BPD files. It’s Steven Drizin calling for Bledsoe. Goldthorpe takes a message: Drizin is the legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and he has just read the City Paperarticle about Hinton.

Drizin specializes in juvenile false confessions. As of press time, Drizin and Bledsoe had not yet had the opportunity to discuss the case. But Hinton’s mother, Francine Toney, who is convinced by the DNA evidence that her son falsely confessed, says any attention to the case by a specialist such as Drizin “is hope, and we need hope.”

*Ronald Hinton is the son of the late Baltimore Police Department trainee Sean Hinton , whose body in 1992 was found floating off Manhattan with his wrists tied in front of him by the drawstrings of his jacket, and whose death was ruled a suicide despite allegations of police corruption immediately prior.

Puzzling Evidence: The Confession of a Boy Convicted of Raping and Murdering a Child Outweighed Indications That He Might Not Have Done It

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, July 30, 2008 (Photo from Baltimore City Police Department)


“Come here with an ambulance, quick!”

15-year-old Ronald Alberto Hinton cries over the phone to the 911 operator just after noon. “My little cousin fell on the porch, hit her head, she ain’t getting up. Come on, hurry up!” Seconds later, he tells the operator she “fell and hit her head on the ground.” When the responding medics and police arrive, Hinton, who is the baby sitter, tells them that 4-year-old Ja’niya Ebony Woodley fell while jumping on the bed.

Hinton is at 2908 Goodwood Road in Northeast Baltimore, a house rented by his uncle Leland Slater and Slater’s longtime companion, Deborah Wall, who are the unconscious girl’s grandparents. Daikwon Eaddy, the girl’s 7-year-old brother, is the only other person at the house when the authorities arrive. He corroborates the fall from the bed, but his version differs from Hinton’s on where she landed.

The first responders quickly conclude the child’s extensive injuries–the most obvious are that her face is black and blue and swollen, her lower lip is busted, and there are bite marks on her chest and thigh and bruises all over, especially on her thigh and back–resulted from child abuse, some of it sexual. The boys’ stories don’t hold up. One of the medics, according to her statement in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) homicide file of the case, says that “seeing the bruises, I knew that no matter how high the bed was, the bruises were older than what [Hinton] made them appear to be.”

Shortly after 1 p.m. on June 21, 2006, the victim is transported by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, where Dr. Jamie Schwartz examines her and tells Baltimore police detectives that her injuries “are not accidental,” noting her condition: “critical with minimal brain activity, a bite on her nipple, old bites on chest, and left thigh.” Injuries to the vaginal area are also observed, and a kit used to gather evidence of rape is administered, including a swab to test for genetic material left in the bite marks on the left thigh.

Also arriving at the hospital are several of the victim’s relatives, and a chaotic scene soon erupts when the child’s actual parentage becomes known to shocked family members for the first time. Her name is not Ja’niya Woodley, it turns but, but Ja’niya Williams. Tempers flare as the child’s mother, Joy Eaddy, is caught having lied to Keenan Woodley, who up until that moment thought he was Ja’niya’s father, and John Williams, the child’s actual father, who learns suddenly that Keenan Woodley was also helping to raise the child. The shift in the family tree also means Hinton is not Ja’niya Williams’ cousin, as he thought when he called 911 a couple of hours earlier, and that Slater and Wall are not her grandparents.

A city Department of Social Services (DSS) social worker attempting to interview family members reports that she encounters rage and indignation as they start “yelling they did not abuse” the victim. Joy Eaddy does “not show any signs of remorse, sadness or concern” over her daughter’s injuries, and is “quickly angered” and refuses “to answer any more questions.” A distraught Wall tells paramedics and the police that the child is not abused and that her only injuries occurred the day before, when she fell into a fan and hurt her head. Another DSS caseworker informs police that Joy Eaddy “has a DSS history of child neglect,” without providing details, but tells them that Daikwon Eaddy “was to have no contact with his mother . . . until further notice.”


At police headquarters downtown, at 10 p.m. later that night, Hinton sits in a waiting room with his mother, Francine Toney; he’s been there since shortly before 5 p.m. Daikwon Eaddy is there, too, in Slater’s care. They are waiting to speak with two detectives–William Wagner of the child-abuse section and homicide investigator Todd Corriveau–who have just arrived after spending the afternoon and evening at the hospital, gathering information about Ja’niya Williams’ injuries and family circumstances. At quarter to midnight, after taking a statement from Slater, the detectives start to tape their interview of Eaddy.

Eaddy, the detectives write, says Hinton was “slamming [his sister] on the bed” and “kept on messing with her,” even though “she kept crying for me” to help and Eaddy was telling Hinton to “Stop! Stop!” He describes his sister as “unconscious,” “bleeding from her nose and mouth,” and as having “many bruises on her body.” Eaddy recalls Hinton “was holding his sister’s hands and shaking her,” and also “dragging his sister on the steps inside the home.”

At 12:06 a.m. on June 22, right after Eaddy’s statement is taken, Corriveau writes in his log of the investigation that “Ronald Hinton is now a suspect,” though Hinton and his mother do not know this.

At 12:35 a.m., Hinton is advised of and waives his Miranda rights in the presence of his mother, who is then ushered away. The detectives begin an hourlong preliminary interview, which is not tape-recorded. At 1:36 a.m., they turn on the tape recorder and go over it all again for posterity.

Wagner writes in the charging papers that Hinton confessed to “performing cunnilingus on the victim, fondling and digitally penetrating the victim’s vagina with his fingers, and putting his penis partially in the victim’s vagina. The defendant also bit the victim on her right breast and bit the victim twice on her left thigh. He struck her multiple times with an open hand to the face. At one point the victim ran downstairs and he pursued. He caught her and carried her back upstairs, retrieved a black belt from a closet and beat her with it.”

The detectives note that “Hinton provided information that only he–the suspect–had knowledge of, such as the exact injury to the victim’s body and how her injuries were inflicted,” though the detectives, too, know Williams’ injuries.

At 3:15 a.m., Hinton is charged with rape and assault and put in temporary lockup at the Central District police station. At 4:10 a.m., Corriveau checks to see if Ja’niya Williams is still alive. She is, though she never regains consciousness and dies of her brain injuries on June 23. The next day in the early evening, after the medical examiner rules her death a homicide, murder is added to the list of Hinton’s charges.

When Hinton is transferred to the Central District Intake Facility and is preparing for his bail-review hearing on June 26, his cousin, correctional officer Robin Smith, recognizes him. She looks at his paperwork and listens to what he has to say. “They said I tried to murder somebody,” Smith recalls Hinton saying. “I didn’t do it,” he continues, crying. “They made me sign something, and [said] if I didn’t I would never get to see my mother again, and I’d never go home. They forced me. They made me say I did it, but I didn’t do it.”

After listening to Hinton’s story, Smith gives him some advice: “Don’t talk to no one if they’re not your mother or your lawyer.” She also tells him not to show his charging papers to anyone, warning him that “papers like that can get you killed in here.”


When Ja’niya Williams’ autopsy is conducted on June 24, the medical examiner, Dr. Laron Locke, fills out a diagram with front and back views of a human body. It is used to indicate and describe her external injuries, and it is crowded from her head to her knees with circles and dots connected with lines and arrows to short descriptions of what is observed at various locations. Regarding the head, the notes say: “Whole forehead = general bruise,” with “minor scratches” and a “bruise” around the eyes, while both cheeks are described as “swollen” and the left lower lip is “swollen” with a “small cut” inside.

Corriveau attends the autopsy and compares the findings with Hinton’s confession. He learns that she died as a result of suffering a subdural hematoma, in which veins inside her cranium ruptured, causing blood to constrict and ultimately shut down her swelling brain. Corriveau writes in his summary of the autopsy that this, along with “general blunt force injury to her head,” is “consistent with suspect’s confession that he `beat’ the victim about her head.” He also points out that “skull not fractured; no specific contact `point of impact’ on victim’s head,” and that there are no signs “of any type of strangulation/smothering.”

Corriveau continues his comparison. He notes “abrasions to outside of vagina,” and is reminded that Hinton said he “put his fingers/penis in/on and `rubbed’ victim’s vagina.” He finds the bruising observed at the entry of her vagina, along with the fact that her hymen is intact, consistent with Hinton’s admission “that he `only put it in a little bit.'” Hinton said “he hit her in her bottom lip with his hand,” which explains the swollen, cut lip. The bite marks–on the right breast and on the left thigh–correspond to Hinton’s statement that he “bit her `on her right breast'” and “repeatedly” on the left thigh. The “small linear abrasion to lower back,” Corriveau surmises, is “possibly caused by belt striking her, per suspect’s confession,” and the “bruising and/or possible faded bite marks to right rear buttock” is “consistent with suspect’s confession that he struck her in buttocks with belt.”

Many of Williams’ injuries do not directly correlate to Hinton’s confession, Corriveau notes. The “swollen cheeks,” the “general redness/bruising to forehead,” the “minor scratches/bruising to eyes & in between eyes,” the “bruising to right shoulder,” the “scratch on right arm,” the “bruise to front of right thigh,” the “abrasion to left clavicle,” the “abrasions/contusion to left rear shoulder,” the “bruising to inner left bicep/outer left bicep,” the “bruise” on the “left forearm,” the “scratches/bruise to left hand/wrists,” and the “large contusion/abrasion to middle top back”–these aren’t explained by Hinton’s description of how he injured Williams.

The bite marks on Williams’ body, Corriveau writes, “appear more similar to severe `hickeys’ than to actual puncture wounds or tears to her skin.” But, he adds, “the shape of a mouth is clearly seen on the bite marks, with some spots having clear indications where teeth touched the victim’s skin.” So Corriveau has the medical examiner prepare photographs of them, to scale, “for future comparison purposes to the suspect’s teeth.” The photos, he explains, “will be a better indicator” for comparison that “actual cut-out samples of the victim’s skin,” given the skin “not being drastically broken by the bite marks.”

Two days after the autopsy, Corriveau contacts forensic odentologist Warren Tewes, of the University of Maryland, and discusses with him the possibility of getting “dental molds of the suspect’s teeth, via search warrant, for comparison purposes to the photos of the bite marks on the victim.” On June 28, Corriveau meets with Tewes, who says that dental molds of Hinton’s teeth–which ultimately were not obtained–“are not applicable” for comparing to the photos because the bite marks “have a `lack of definition’ that is necessary for effective and conclusive comparison purposes.” However, Corriveau continues, “Tewes provided general, basic information regarding the bite marks on the victim’s skin that may or may not be of relevance for court and/or testimony purposes” at trial.


The day of the incident, police seize all manner of property from Slater and Wall’s home: sheets, pillows, towels, comforters, a washcloth, a T-shirt, a pair of panties, a pair of flip-flops, a cap, and a pair of shorts with blood on them. They also take swabs of suspected blood from a dresser, a bathroom, a foot stool, and a wall. On June 24, they return and retrieve a belt with “possible blood stains.” Hinton told police about the belt during his confession two days earlier, but the warrant is served only after the autopsy “corroborated the suspect’s claim that he beat the victim with a belt (mainly a 2-3 inch linear abrasion on her back, as well as other bruises on her body),” Corriveau writes in his reports.

After getting the blood and DNA profiles of Ja’niya Williams and Hinton, whose fingerprints are also obtained, Corriveau on July 5 asks for lab work to be done on the seized property. He orders that the belt be analyzed for possible fingerprints and blood, and also asks for the blood on the shorts and the four blood swabs taken from the house be compared to Hinton’s and Williams’ blood. The DNA comparisons he asks for are from a hair found on a sticky pad from the victim’s body at the hospital, and from the swabs taken from Williams’ bite marks, vagina, and anus. He explains that these swabs, which were taken “approximately four hours after” the incident, “are most likely better samples for comparison purposes” than those taken at autopsy three days after Williams arrived at the hospital.

Meanwhile, Corriveau spends the midmorning of June 24 canvassing neighborhood residents. He writes in his report that several of them say they already told news reporters their thoughts about Ronald Hinton, which are, as Corriveau summarizes them, that he “has a history, over the past 4 years (approximately), of violence, lying, abusive language, and sexually charged comments to neighborhood women.” The residents request anonymity and don’t give recorded statements, though Corriveau has their names and contact information. Later that day, he phones a DSS Child Protective Services worker and e-mails BPD public-information officer Donny Moses to inform them of his findings.

Twice more, on July 3 and July 9, Corriveau visits the neighborhood to collect firsthand knowledge of Hinton’s past behavior from four more nearby residents. They, too, ask to remain anonymous. They tell him Hinton is “easily argumentative,” “very confrontational,” and that he “has been seen `beating on’ his `little brothers and sisters’ in his front yard until they either ran away or until `his big brother’ physically stopped him from doing so.” They recall that Hinton “strangled their son approximately 5 years ago, by using both his hands to squeeze their son’s throat, and that suspect had to be physically pulled from their son.”

(Toney reacts to the details of the neighbors’ anonymous accusations with indignation. “It makes me furious,” she says. “We weren’t really welcome to the neighborhood when we moved” there in the mid-`90s, she observes, and alleges that her family has periodically been subjected to racist comments from neighbors. She says her son has taken his share of guff around the neighborhood over the years, and that at times he’s taken the bait–such as the time several years ago that another neighborhood child “hocked spit in his face,” and they fought. But as for the contention that he beat up his younger siblings, Toney says “that didn’t happen.” And she dismisses the suggestion that he makes sexually inappropriate comments as the neighbors “just trying to make him out to be a monster. He did things some children do, he’s not perfect, but that he’s this monstrous thing–I won’t accept it.”)

Corriveau finds that Hinton has no prior juvenile criminal record, though he was the victim of an alleged aggravated assault two years earlier. And a review to see if he has a record of any “citizen contact receipts”–documentation of police-initiated interactions that don’t result in charges–turns up nothing.

On July 10, Corriveau joins the prosecutorial team handling the case–Baltimore assistant state’s attorneys JoAnne Stanton and Temmi Rollack–to interview Daikwon Eaddy at his mother’s home. He arranges the meeting “in order for Stanton and Rollack to meet” the young boy, “ask him preliminary questions regarding the incident in question, and to obtain a `feel’ for him, in terms of his pending court testimony.” The star prosecution witness has a surprise for them.

“During the meeting,” Corriveau writes, Daikwon Eaddy “disclosed that on the day of the incident in question, suspect Ronald Hinton beat him with a belt (previously undisclosed).” Two other people, whose names are redacted from Corriveau’s report, recall that “each observed marks on his back, consistent with being hit with a belt” when Eaddy returned to his grandmother’s house after his June 21 interview with police.


In December 2006, Francine Toney calls City Paper. It is not the first time she’s been in contact with the paper. More than a decade ago, City Paper published an extensive, investigative cover feature and two follow-up news articles about the 1992 death of her husband, Baltimore police trainee Sean Hinton, who was Ronald Hinton’s father (“Dead in the Water,” May 8, 1996; “Another Look,” Mobtown Beat, Dec. 4, 1996; “Questionable Death,” Mobtown Beat, June 4, 1997). Over the intervening years, she stayed in touch, but attempts to reach her after Ronald Hinton’s confession had been fruitless: She’d changed her phone number and moved. Now she’s on the phone, and the emotions are running high.

“The DNA [analysis of evidence in Williams’ homicide] came back, and Ronald couldn’t have done things he confessed to,” Toney explains. “The detectives told me, `The DNA will show everything,'” she continues, in tears. “Now it’s back, and it shows he didn’t do it!” She asks if police would go out and find who killed Williams, now that it was obvious her son didn’t. When asked why he confessed, she says, “he’s afraid of police because of what happened to Sean [Hinton]. The detectives balled up their fists and threatened him, and told him he could go home if he said he did it. He just wanted to be out of there.”

Toney says she does not have all the details, but she knows this much: Ronald’s DNA was not in the bite marks; somebody else’s was. “He didn’t bite her,” Toney says. “Somebody else did. And there’s other people’s DNA at other places, too, different people.” She adds that since her son has been held in jail, turmoil between the two families has been taxing, but the new DNA findings are “going to make things worse. Who did these things to that poor child?”

Toney takes out a second mortgage on her house to hire Janice Bledsoe as her son’s criminal-defense attorney in early 2007. She invites a City Paper reporter to go with her and several members of her family for a February 2007 meeting about the case at Bledsoe’s office. Color photographs of Ja’niya Williams lying face up in a Hopkins hospital bed are reviewed, prompting remarks (including by this reporter) that some of the bruises look less than fresh. No one in the room is an expert on such matters, but everyone bruises, and therefore knows that bruises change color over time. Some of Williams’ many bruises appeared to have a greenish-yellowish hue, suggesting some time had passed since they were sustained.

If someone’s DNA other than Hinton’s is in the bite marks, and if Williams’ sustained earlier injuries when Hinton was not present, then Toney and the rest of Hinton’s family have hope that perhaps his confession can be overcome at trial. The jury is going to need an explanation of why Hinton confessed falsely, and the one that Toney suggests–his deep-seated fear of police, because of what he believes about his father’s death when he was an infant–is the only one available.

During the weeks after the incident, the issue of prior injuries to Williams is brought up during Corriveau’s interviews with family members, as transcribed in the homicide file. He asks the witnesses if Hinton has been the children’s baby sitter on prior occasions, and if any injuries were observed at those times. He learns that Hinton has, and that no injuries were noticed before–except on the day before the incident, and Corriveau gets different versions of the story.

Deborah Walls, at the hospital on the night of the incident, is on record mentioning that Williams had injured her head in an accident with a fan. But when she’s interviewed later by Corriveau, she tells it differently. “When I got home I noticed a hickey on her forehead, on her left side,” Walls says during a July 1, 2006, taped interview. “I said, `Where did you get that?’ And she said she had fallen getting a towel, and I got right on the phone immediately and called her mother and let her talk to her mother. I tell her mother any time they got injured playing or anything, that’s the first thing I did.” By “hickey,” she explains, she means “a bump, as a bump on the head.” She says Ronald Hinton told her that “[Ja’niya] fell.”

Leland Slater is also interviewed on July 1, and in his version, it’s the fan that hurts Williams, but on her back rather than her head. He recalls he was in the kitchen with other family members on the night before the incident, and somehow Williams’ shirt rode up her back. He says he saw “marks on her back,” and when Williams was asked about them, he recalls Ja’niya saying that “I was upstairs” and “I fell over the fan.”

The conflicting explanations of the nature and cause of Williams’ injuries the day before raises the question: Are there any other indications that some of Williams’ injuries may have happened before June 21? And there are. The medic, for instance, who helped treat Williams before she arrived the hospital, and who told police she thinks some of the “bruises were older.” And Dr. Schwartz at Hopkins, who described “old bites on chest, and left thigh,” a phrase that was used in the charging documents and search-warrant affidavits in the case against Hinton. Corriveau himself, in his report about the autopsy, describes “bruising and/or possible faded bite marks to right rear buttock” (emphasis added).

Corriveau clearly suspected Hinton had abused Williams before, but witnesses didn’t corroborate that idea. As a result, his investigative record suggests Williams had older injuries–including at least some of the very bite marks that Hinton confessed to giving her.

Raising the importance of the bite marks even further is the fact that the ones on the upper left thigh were swabbed and came back positive for the presence of DNA belonging to an unknown person other than Hinton. Yet the homicide file has nothing in it to suggest investigators even considered taking steps to try to identify that person. Nor are there any indications in the file that attempts were made to learn the source of the DNA recovered from a variety of other locations on the tested evidence belonging to people other than Hinton.

After all, who needs DNA when you already have a confession?


“Ronald Hinton is the son of Sean Hinton and Francine Toney,” Bledsoe tells the Baltimore City Circuit Court jury. She’s five minutes into her opening statement on the first day of the trial, April 23, 2008, and she is trying to tell the jurors why, if Hinton didn’t rape and beat Williams, he would tell the police he did. “The Hinton family has an unusual history,” Bledsoe says. “Sean Hinton was a police officer–”

“Objection,” Stanton says.

Bledsoe shrugs in frustration as she and Stanton approach the bench to argue before Judge John Addison Howard. Stanton hardly says a word in the ensuing debate, though, as it is apparent that Howard has already made up his mind: Bledsoe won’t be allowed to discuss Hinton’s father in front of the jury.

“It’s a bunch of hooey and a lot of hearsay,” Howard tells Bledsoe during the bench conference, “and you’re not going to be able to go into it.”

Bledsoe explains the situation to Hinton and his family out in the hallway–that the main thrust of his defense was just yanked out from under him. She adds that it is even worse than that, because the jury, having heard only half of her sentence, is left with the impression that since Sean Hinton was a police officer, his son would have strong reasons to trust the police, not to fear them. The last guilty-plea offer from the prosecutor, prior to the beginning of the trial, was 20 years of imprisonment, but Hinton and his family still don’t want to take the deal. Ronald is innocent, they say, and they want a trial. So the trial continues.

The tape of Ronald Hinton’s confession is played. Though it doesn’t appear in the transcript–and though Corriveau and Wagner testify that once they turned on the tape recorder, they never turned it off again until the confession was over–Bledsoe points out to the jury that the very beginning of the tape has a split-second of a human voice loudly saying, “Stop messing with me!” It sounds like Hinton’s voice.

Corriveau insists that he didn’t use leading questions when interviewing Hinton, didn’t suggest Williams’ injuries so that Hinton had the information he needed to admit to details about the injuries that Corriveau knew from visiting her in the hospital–and then Bledsoe proves he did on two occasions, when Corriveau asked Hinton whether or not he put his hands between Williams’ legs and his fingers in her vagina. Corriveau explains that Hinton had already provided that information in the preliminary interview.

Wagner testifies that he took notes rather than record the preliminary interview in order to have a complete record–and then admits that, yes, recording the preliminary interview, too, would have provided a more complete record of what transpired in the interview room. (Hinton’s false-confession claim was included in a City Paper article [“Fess Up,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 23] about a law that passed in Maryland’s 2008 General Assembly session requiring police to videotape all aspects of interviews with suspects in murder and sexual-assault cases. The law is intended to help create foolproof confessions, while also assuring police interviews are on the up-and-up.)

Corriveau’s theory that Hinton had abused Williams on prior occasions does not come up at the trial. In fact, other than the “hickey” on Williams’ forehead, no one–not Corriveau, not the medic, not Dr. Schwartz–testifies that they observed any signs that some of Williams’ injuries may have occurred before the harm Hinton confessed to inflicting. Under cross examination, though, the medical examiner admits the possibility that Williams’ death could have been caused by more than one brain injury in succession. In other words, it’s theoretically possible that whatever harmed Williams’ head on June 21 may have worsened a brain injury that occurred earlier.

The conflicting stories used to explain Williams’ hickey–was it tripping on a towel, falling into a fan, or both?–are not brought up for the jury. Nor is there any mention of the marks on her back that Slater said he observed in the kitchen the night before the incident. In fact, Slater doesn’t testify at all. Whatever became of Corriveau’s attempt to compare Hinton’s dental pattern to Williams’ bite marks also is not in evidence at the trial.

Daikwon Eaddy, now 9, gives confusing testimony broken up by bathroom breaks and a tearful inability to answer questions. He says nothing about Hinton beating him with a belt, and though his testimony describes menacing behavior by Hinton, he does not say Hinton committed the violent acts he’d told investigators about the night of the incident.

At one point, Judge Howard comes down off the bench, crouches next to Eaddy, and has a quiet conversation with him in front of the jury. “You’re doing good,” the judge tells him. When Bledsoe asks twice for a recess, so the jury won’t continue see Howard giving Eaddy a pep talk, the judge gets testy: “I heard you the first time, Ms. Bledsoe.”

The DNA evidence is presented, including a dramatic cross examination of the DNA expert by Bledsoe’s partner, Sandra Goldthorpe, who reveals to the jury that the DNA in the bite marks not only isn’t Hinton’s but that it’s a female’s. All told, six of the analyzed items excluded Ronald Hinton’s DNA, but included the DNA of others, male and female. If any of the jurors want a solid basis on which to build reasonable doubts about Hinton’s guilt, it is the DNA evidence. But they still have the confession to consider, and they still don’t have an explanation for why anyone would lie about such things.


The prosecution team wraps up its case, and Ronald Hinton takes the stand in his own defense. He accuses Corriveau and Wagner of threatening to beat him up in the interview room if he didn’t confess. “That’s when I kept on telling them, like, `Leave me alone,'” Hinton testifies. “And that’s when I said I didn’t do nothing. That’s when they said, `If you tell us you did it, we’ll let you go home.’ I thought I was going to go home, because I was scared, because I thought something was going to happen to me, because I don’t like police officers, and the reason I don’t like them–”

“Objection,” the prosecutor says.

“Sustained,” the judge says.

Bledsoe tries to elicit Hinton’s response in a variety of ways and is blocked two more times by sustained objections before the judge allows her line of questions to continue.

Bledsoe turns to Hinton and asks, “Why were you afraid?”

“Because my father,” Hinton answers, “he was killed by policemen, even his own partners.”

That’s all Ronald Hinton’s jury heard about his father’s story: two mentions on either end of the trial, with no details, no context, and no questions asked or answered. It’s a case that stands out in the memories of many Baltimore police officers, and it has deeply haunted the Hinton family.

Sean Hinton was 22, weeks away from his city police academy graduation, and had just undergone field training in the Western District with police officer Stanley Gasque. On Oct. 24, 1992, a Friday night, Hinton had a minor car accident downtown and was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. The next day, after getting his car out of the tow lot, he walked out of his home. His last contact with his family was a phone call from the Amtrak station in Baltimore to his family.

Ten days later, his body was recovered from the New York Harbor off Battery Park in lower Manhattan. His wrists were bound tightly in front of his body with the drawstrings of a jacket, and though the autopsy report did not note head trauma, it appeared evident in the accompanying photos. His fingers and hands still had skin on them, though it had slipped a bit, but his swollen, misshapen face was devoid of skin from the scalp to below the chin.

New York medical examiner Mark Flomenbaum, after three weeks of consideration and after learning from the Baltimore police that what was characterized as a suicide note had been found, on Nov. 27, 1992, ruled the case a suicide by drowning. He attributed the condition of the body to the postmortem effects of floating in the water.

City Paper published photos from Hinton’s autopsy, with his family’s permission, in the 1996 article titled “Dead in the Water.” It explored a variety of facts that Flomenbaum did not have at his disposal when he made the suicide ruling, including the contents of the letter he left for his family and the very suspicious circumstances involving Hinton and Gasque that occurred the week he disappeared. Those circumstances involved accusations that together they robbed a drug dealer in West Baltimore, and that federal law enforcers suspected Gasque was protecting a drug organization known for torturing and robbing other drug dealers. It took years of investigating before, ultimately, nothing came of the accusations against Gasque and Hinton.

The members of Sean Hinton’s family, though, say they have no doubt that he was murdered before he shared information about unaddressed police corruption. The story is fact in the Hintons’ minds, even if it never can be proven. And their interpretation of the fact that the BPD mounted a 21-gun salute at Sean Hinton’s funeral–a rare police honor–is that they’re not the only ones who believe Hinton was killed in the line of duty.

Not so the jurors, who learn nothing of the family’s story, nor of the facts about Sean Hinton’s death. They also have no expert testimony to explain the female DNA in the bite mark–though Stanton, in closing arguments, assures them that it was attributable to contamination during Williams’ medical treatment. And she points out that, at the end of his confession, Hinton apologized–something, she argues, an innocent suspect would not do. After four hours of deliberation, the 12 jurors unanimously decide Hinton’s confession was true and voluntary, and on May 5, 2008, they convict him on all counts.

On July 21, Ronald Hinton is sentenced to life in prison, plus 25 years. He files an appeal the same day, and in June he sends a letter from jail to the Innocence Project, a group that uses DNA and evidence of false confessions to work for the release of innocent convicts. To date, Toney says, Hinton has not heard from the organization.

“If the DNA matched, I would accept that he did this,” Francine Toney says of the case. “It doesn’t, so I still believe he said he did it because he’s so afraid of the police.”

If the appeal succeeds, Hinton might get a crack at another jury. If not, he’s in for the long haul, serving life for the rape and murder of a child–crimes that tend to put an inmate convicted of them in low esteem among fellow prisoners. If he didn’t do it, that’s a particularly hard position to be in. If he did, well, prison authorities are responsible for keeping him safe, as best they can.

“I got a letter from him,” Toney explains over the phone on July 25. “He’s in a cell by himself, with two shelves and a bed. The bed is comfortable, and there’s enough room for him to pace back and forth and pray to God.”

She starts to cry. “It hurts me, because I feel so helpless now that I can’t help him. It’s so sad. Ja’niya is gone, and that hurts me, too. But what about the DNA? The prosecutor said [to the jury] don’t worry about the DNA, the DNA doesn’t matter in this case. Well, what’s so different about Ronald’s case?

“I am so tired of the falsehoods about my family–my husband killed himself, Ronald did this to Ja’niya, Ronald is abusive. I am just not going to accept it. If the DNA matched, I’d have no choice to accept it. But it didn’t, and I won’t accept it.”

Ja’niya Williams’ father, John Williams, speaks to a reporter on July 26, while working at his job as a drug-store security guard. He has no doubts whatsoever that Hinton did it. Asked about prior wounds on his daughter’s body, especially any bite marks, Williams says: “I know about that. She got bit on her arm, playing with her cousin a few days before,” indicating his left bicep. When informed that others observed older bites and bruises at other locations, and that the jury did not hear about that evidence, Williams sticks to his guns. He’s 100-percent certain they’ve got the culprit behind bars.

“That boy boxed himself in,” Williams observes. “I would never, ever say I did anything I didn’t do–especially something like that.”

Dead in the Water: In 1992, the Body of a Baltimore Police Trainee Was Found Floating Off Manhattan, Wrists Tied Together. It Was Ruled a Suicide. But Did Anyone Besides Sean Hinton Want Sean Hinton Dead?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 8, 1996


A 22-year-old Baltimore police trainee, married with three children and living in a public-housing apartment, has a career-shattering week that includes being arrested for drunken-driving and being accused of involvement in police corruption. He disappears after leaving a cryptic good-bye note to his wife.

Ten days later, he turns up dead in New York, floating facedown in the water off the southern tip of Manhattan. No one knows how he got there. His wrists are tied together in front of him. Initial reports filed by New York officials who recovered the body describe head trauma and a possible bullet hole in his cheek, but the autopsy report notes no signs of injury or a struggle. Three weeks later, a New York medical examiner rules the case a suicide by drowning.

The Sean Hinton case is a tantalizing riddle with very few clues. The Baltimore City Police Department (BCPD) recently released Hinton’s personnel file, which includes the results of a questionable-death investigation. BCPD’s Internal Investigations Division (IID) conducted probes and there may have been other Baltimore-based investigations as well, but the results haven’t been released. The New York Police Department (NYPD) won’t comment, saying the case is still under investigation. Hinton’s family wants answers. But a limited number of documents and other pieces of evidence, and the recollections of a few reliable sources, are all they have to go on.

Considering the clues that are available, there are only two plausible explanations for Hinton’s death: suicide or homicide. It is possible to reconstruct, blow by blow, the verifiable events that led the medical examiner to conclude – with some speculation – that it was a suicide. It is also possible to find oversights and misinterpretations – at least one of which bears strongly on the suicide ruling – in the autopsy report.

Autopsy photos show an obvious dent above Hinton’s right temple. Today, the medical examiner says the injury occurred after death. But he did not describe it in his autopsy report three-and-a-half years ago, even though the head trauma was noted when the body was pulled out of the water. This oversight leaves open the question of whether the dent occurred before or after Hinton’s death – a question that is vital to determining whether or not Hinton killed himself.

Judgment calls are a necessary part of a medical examiner’s work; not every death can be explained based only on the physical evidence and the known circumstances. But not all deaths have a possible murder motive, either. Hinton’s did. And the medical examiner didn’t know about it when he ruled on Hinton’s death.

Two nights before Sean Hinton disappeared, his family recalls, he spent about eight hours at home preparing extensive police paperwork. Two days before that, he had made a drug bust with BCPD Officer Stanley Gasque, whose career has been marked by complaints of alleged corruption, according to published news accounts and court records. After the arrest, the suspect filed a complaint with IID alleging that Gasque, Hinton, and another officer burglarized his house. Within a year of this incident, the eight members of the Western District drug-enforcement unit to which Gasque belonged had been reassigned, although no criminal charges were ever filed against them. Hinton’s family now believes that Sean knew something and was planning to report it.

BCPD Lieutenant Robert Stanton, who worked on the Hinton case for the homicide department, says his investigation ended after the suicide ruling, a week after he started. His December 10, 1992 report on the case concludes: “It is obvious that a number of questions concerning this incident will long linger and possibly remain unanswered. The fact that the body is found out of jurisdiction and never viewed by anyone from this agency puts us at a disadvantage from the start.”

Stanton says he “wasn’t made privy to most of” the IID investigations of Hinton’s death and the alleged burglary. “IID is a separate entity,” he explains, adding, “I didn’t find anything that made the connection” between his investigation and theirs. Once the death was ruled a suicide, Stanton’s investigation was closed.

Had the manner of death been listed as “undetermined,” Stanton would have pursued the questionable-death investigation further. Perhaps he would have turned up more clues or discovered the possible murder motive; the case for ruling the death either a suicide or a homicide might have been bolstered. As it is, based on what little information has been made available to them, Hinton’s family is convinced Sean was murdered and the truth covered up.


It is Saturday, October 24, 1992. Hinton returns to his Lafayette Courts apartment after getting his car out of impoundment. The young police trainee is due to graduate from the academy in a few weeks, but his fledgling career is suddenly a shambles.

A drug suspect Hinton helped bust on Tuesday the 20th has filed a complaint alleging that Hinton and two officers burglarized his house after the arrest. The night of Friday the 23rd, Hinton had been arrested on drunken-driving charges. Saturday morning, still in the police lockup, he called his friend, 67-year-old Forrest Lee Moore – the man Hinton called “Granddaddy” – and said he expected to have to beg to remain with the police department. (In fact, three days after Sean disappeared, he was fired for misconduct, according to documents in his personnel file.)

Back at home, Hinton opens a spiral notebook and writes a letter to his wife, which she finds eight days later. “24 Oct 92, 540 pm time written. Francine you have dealt with me 4 years, and you never seemed to believe I really loved you – I do love you. You have Jehovah on your side. I have no one. I need Jehovah but I just can’t seem to reach him. So I guess I’ll see someone. Please take care of our children for me. 1744 hrs. Sean Hinton.”

Then he walks out of the apartment and heads toward Orleans Street, leaving his car behind. About an hour later, he calls home to say he’ll be right back. When he fails to show, his mother, Jean Hinton, consults her caller-ID system and discovers he had called from Pennsylvania Station at 6:48 P.M. Shortly after midnight, the Hintons report Sean missing.

Ten days later, on Tuesday, November 3 – the same day Bill Clinton is elected president – Hinton turns up dead. His body is found floating facedown in the water behind New York’s Batter Park Coast Guard Station, the wrists tied up in front with the drawstring of his jacket. His wallet contains $42.95 and several pieces of identification, including a Fraternal Order of Police membership card.

It is around 10:30 A.M. when the body is taken out of the water. An investigator from the New York Medical Examiner’s Office arrives at the scene. He writes in his report, “Decedent is an app. homicide victim. Hands are bound, and head trauma noted.” Several New York police officers also are present on the dock. One files a report at 10:55, noting the body is a “Poss. homicide, hands tied together with black cord and poss. bullet hole left cheek.” When the body is transported to the medical examiner’s office, it is labeled with a tag that reads HOMICIDE.

Five hours later in Baltimore, Joseph Kleinota, BCPD missing-persons detective, who up until then had no breaks in the Hinton case, reports that he has spoken to New York homicide detective Joseph Burdick. His report documents Burdick as saying that a “preliminary investigation reveals that subject committed suicide. … It appears that the person had tied his own hands.”

Burdick also files a report of the conversation. He writes that Kleinota told him Hinton had left a note and that he “had recently become despondent over an arrest and a dept. Disciplinary hearing he was due to attend regarding this arrest.”

The next day, November 4, New York medical examiner Mark Flomenbaum conducts the autopsy. Given the level of decomposition, he figures Hinton has been dead for several days at least. He notes fluid in Hinton’s chest, abdomen, and lungs, indicating drowning as the cause of death. Examining the bound wrists, he jots on his autopsy work sheet: “Comment: appears to req. great deal of facility to do by self.” He describes “soft metal fragments” lodged in the victim’s windpipe. Other than the effects of decomposition, Flomenbaum notes nothing else remarkable about the body.

After the autopsy, Flomenbaum decides the case is a possible suicide. But he isn’t sure yet, so he files a death certificate stating the cause as drowning and leaving the manner of death open, “pending further studies.” On November 27, convinced after consultation with various New York and Baltimore investigators that Hinton intended to and was capable of tying his own wrists to hinder his ability to swim, Flomenbaum changes his ruling to suicide by drowning.


In a nutshell, that is the story of Sean Hinton’s demise. According to Francine Hinton, the police department expressed its sympathy by covering the funeral costs, paying out insurance money, and outfitting their children – Ronald, Sean, Jr., and Shatia, then one, three, and five years old – with some new clothes.

She isn’t satisfied with the explanation that Sean committed suicide, though. Neither are his mother, sisters, brothers, and friends.

That is to be expected; authorities say family members and friends almost always respond to suicide with disbelief. But Sean Hinton’s case is not like most suicides. First, there is a possible motive for murder.

On October 20, 1992, Hinton was working with Gasque, who had returned several months before to the Western District drug-enforcement unit after being moved to patrol because federal officials suspected he was connected to a drug ring, according to a 1993 Sun article. Why a police trainee was working with this particular officer is unknown, but it is a question the family would very much like to have answered.

After receiving information from a confidential informant, Gasque and Hinton arrested Eric Thomas on drugs and firearms charges in a school zone in West Baltimore. Shortly after the arrest, Thomas complained to IID that Gasque, Hinton, and another, unnamed cop confiscated his keys while booking him and went to his house and stole property, including money. A Baltimore City grand jury heard testimony from several witnesses who said they saw the burglary, but no indictment was handed down. BCPD Lieutenant Stanton explains that one of the witnesses was considered unreliable because of a murder conviction.

The drugs and firearms charges against Thomas were dropped after his attorney subpoenaed records of the investigations of Gasque’s conduct and Hinton’s disappearance and death. On November 5, 1992, Thomas was arrested again, this time on a charge of robbery with a deadly weapon in connection with an October 10, 1992 incident at the Money Service Center on West Baltimore Street. According to sources close to the case, Thomas was arrested at his house by Detective Arnold Adams just as IID detectives were arriving to tell Thomas he had passed the polygraph test he took in connection with his complaint against Gasque and Hinton.

According to court records, the armed-robbery charges against Thomas were dismissed by a Circuit Court judge after prosecutors refused to provide eyewitness’ statements given to Adams on November 3, 1992 (the day Hinton’s body was found), when Thomas was allegedly picked out of a photo array.

(Adams is no longer with the BCPD; his career ended last summer when he was caught collecting rewards for having an accomplice call in crime tips to Metro Crime Stoppers’ anonymous tip line, according to accounts in The Sun.)

In May 1994, Thomas was arrested again on drug-conspiracy charges. This time, the charges stuck and he was sentenced to federal prison. Before the case was moved to federal court, Thomas wrote a letter to Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John Themelis. After naming officers connected to his case whom he believed were under IID investigation, Thomas pleaded: “I pray that your honor sees these views on my behalf before this puzzle goes any further. There are things that the courts and your Honor should know especially [sic] about some Dead Police Officers [emphasis is Thomas’].”

Eric Thomas’ burglary claim is the only known allegation of police misconduct involving Hinton. Gasque, on the other hand, has weathered several investigations, according to a 1993 Sun article by David Simon. In late 1991, federal officials linked Gasque to a telephone pager being used by a member of a drug organization, and suspected he was in regular contact with the group. In 1992 came Thomas’ complaint. In the summer of 1993, after serving a search warrant based on informant information, Gasque refused to produce the informant for an interview with prosecutors, who suspected the informant did not exist.

Federal officials say they suspected that Gasque was protecting the “Strong as Steel” drug organization. According to federal court documents, Strong as Steel – which operated out of West Baltimore from 1991 to 1993 – was known for robbing and torturing members of other drug organization, and using a former police cadet disguised as a police officer in many of its crimes.

The allegations against Gasque and other Western District drug officers led officials in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office to urge the BCPD to reassign the entire unit, which the police department did in July 1993. After the purge, Gasque served in another plainclothes unit, the Western District’s “flex unit,” which mostly does street-level drug work. Later, he was reassigned as a Western District turnkey, letting booked suspects in and out of lockup.

The fallout from the allegations against Gasque didn’t end with his reassignment, though. Prosecution of westside drug cases suffered as a result of his reputation. Defense attorneys on cases involving Gasque – staring with Eric Thomas’ attorneys – found that prosecutors tended to dismiss cases or make attractive plea offers if the defense subpoenaed records of the investigations into Gasque’s conduct and Hinton’s death.

In all, between August 1993 and May 1994, 14 of 38 Circuit Court defendants in cases involving Gasque and other former Western District drug-enforcement-unit officers saw their charges dropped or placed on the inactive docket, according to a 1994 Sun article.

Two days after the Eric Thomas arrest, Hinton’s family remembers, Sean came home after work and spent about eight hours doing extensive police-related paperwork in the kitchen. They say they never asked what he was working on, out of respect for his professional need for confidentiality. Stanton notes that Hinton could have been writing up field-training reports rather than reporting police corruption, but Hinton’s family says they had never seen him concentrate so extensively on police paperwork at home. They now believe Hinton was preparing to report alleged corruption to the authorities. If so, someone may have had a motive to shut him up.


The autopsy report sets down the anatomical evidence on which the suicide-by-drowning ruling was based. The report describes no injuries to the body whatsoever. In an interview at his office last month, medical examiner Flomenbaum asserted that initial reports of a possible bullet hole in the left cheek and apparent blunt trauma to the head were mistaken. “There was no trauma to his body,” he said adamantly while reviewing the autopsy report.

Looking at the autopsy photos on a slide project, though, Flomenbaum is asked to zoom in on an obvious dent in the right side of Hinton’s forehead, just above the temple. “This is not anything but decompositional changes,” he says. “Any pathologist worth his salt would see that.” The body probably got knocked around a bit while floating in the water or while being retrieved and transported for autopsy, he says.

But the autopsy report did not note this dent. Regarding the postmortem condition of Hinton’s head, the report notes “red discoloration of the face and anterior aspects of the scalp” and “bloating of the lips, eyelids, and tongue.” During the internal examination of the body, the medical examiner reported “the scalp has no contusions … the skull has no fractures … [and] there are no grossly apparent focal lesions.” Thus, if the dent caused internal damage to the head, it wasn’t found during the autopsy.

After looking at the dent in the slide-projector photos, Flomenbaum qualifies his earlier statement. “There was no trauma at autopsy that couldn’t be accounted for by submersion,” he says. But why didn’t the autopsy report note any trauma at all, even that for which there was a postmortem explanation? “We never would describe things like that if it is just denting of soft tissue,” Flomenbaum explains. “Unless there is something that can be confused with something else, we just tend to give a general description.”

There were other apparent omissions in Flomenbaum’s autopsy report that don’t necessarily bear on how Hinton died, but might call into question the report’s thoroughness. Though it mentions “slippage of the skin at the waist, back, wrists, and ankles,” the report doesn’t point out skin slippage on the face, noting only the “red discoloration.” In fact, the face lacks most of its skin. As one former law-enforcement official who viewed the photos says, “This is more than just red discoloration of the face – the skin has slipped right off.”

Flomenbaum agrees that the skin on Hinton’s face “just wasn’t there.” He explains that he didn’t describe skin slippage on the face because the term applies only where you can still see the skin is in the slipped position.” Since the facial skin was mostly gone, he didn’t describe it at all. The report also makes no mention of Hinton’s shirt, although it lists all other clothing he was wearing. (“I must have missed that,” Flomenbaum explains.)

The autopsy report also describes two half-inch-by-half-inch “soft metal fragments (of unidentified origin) in the right main bronchus, just below the carina.” The objects do not appear in the X-rays of Hinton’s chest, which would clearly show them were they actually metal. During the April interview, when Flomenbaum opened a specimen bottle containing samples of Hinton’s tissues, two objects of approximately the same size were included. They appeared to be fragments of a bivalve shell, not soft metal.

“If these were what was in his [windpipe], they must have looked like metal at the time,” Flomenbaum says. He speculates that the solution in which they were stored dissolved the metal away from the surface of the objects.

Finally, Flomenbaum acknowledges that, as a rule, “there is nothing that can prove drowning.” This was confirmed by other medical examiners, who say that drowning cases don’t always display the tell-tale signs of drowning. Flomenbaum explains that he ruled that Hinton drowned because “the body was found in the water and any other anatomical explanation has been excluded.” But his autopsy report overlooks a point some pathologists say bears on the question of drowning – whether there was water in the sinuses.

John Smialek, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, explains that “there are certain indications that are usually present but not always present” in drowning cases, such as “water in the stomach and air passages, especially the sinuses, which confirms the person was breathing in the water.” The Hinton autopsy report notes “blood-colored watery liquid in the chest and in the abdomen” and that “both lungs contain abundant clear fluid,” but the condition of the sinuses is not described.

The gaps in the autopsy report are not unusual. Mistakes happen in medical examiners’ offices, as anywhere else; they are part of the tricky business of examining dead bodies. And in New York, where in 1993 the medical examiner’s office had an average caseload of 5.3 autopsies per week (the National Association of Medical Examiners recommends no more than 3.8 per week), the high volume of work can be expected to cause difficulties.

Due to possible oversights, corpses are sometimes exhumed for second autopsies which can reveal previously overlooked details that help solve mysteries. In a celebrated early-1980s case, for instance, an Illinois coroner missed three skull fractures on the head of a woman named Karla Brown. The fractures were discovered after Brown’s body was exhumed four years later, a step that led to a murder conviction.


In addition to a possible murder motive and the questionable autopsy, the Hinton case is curious because of the manner and cause of his death. Only one or two percent of all suicides are by drowning, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

And there is the larger question of Hinton’s bound wrists. Flomenbaum, looking at slides of Hinton’s wrists, concludes, “This is not somebody trying to immobilize him. It is a simple knot that is possible to do by yourself.” He says reliable sources involved in investigating the case informed him that Hinton could have done it himself. And he dismisses as naivete his comment in his initial autopsy notes that the knot would require a “great deal of facility to do by self.” The autopsy report says the wrists were tied together with a square knot, a knot that seems impossible to use in binding one’s own hands. (This reporter tried several times and could not do it in a way that would adequately bind the wrists.) Perhaps Hinton tied the knot, then twisted his wrists up tight into the knotted drawstring. Either way, if Hinton bound himself it took considerable dexterity and effort.

When Flomenbaum ruled the case a suicide on November 27, 1992, he was not aware of the allegations of corruption surrounding Hinton. The first he heard of them was in March 1996, when a reporter called him to discuss the case. At the time of the ruling, he said during the April interview, all he knew was that Hinton disappeared after being charged with drunken driving and after leaving a note for his wife. “People kill themselves for a lot less than DWIs,” he says.

Flomenbaum describes Hinton’s note as “very weird. … There’s no mention that he’s going to kill himself.” But he says he still believes it “very strongly supports suicide.” And the new information about Hinton’s circumstances at the time he died, Flomenbaum believes, only bolsters his initial ruling.

“It looks like he was probably involved with some big-time, major shit,” Flomenbaum says. “He saw no way out. He probably wanted to do something right, but was so trapped, it seemed [suicide] was his only option.”

Besides, Flomenbaum continues, “if someone did have a motive to kill him, how did they do it? This is not a homicidal drowning. Homicidal drownings are very, very rare.” He’s right; they are even more rare than suicideal drownings. According to the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, in 1992 there were only 29 murders by drowning in the country, about one-10th of one percent of the more than 22,000 killings committed that year.

“I think the circumstances of why he disappeared should be investigated,” Flomenbaum concludes, “but the physical evidence of the ruling is compelling for suicide. I don’t have an anatomy of a murder. There was no struggle. He had his wallet on him. Everything we’ve seen is what happens when people are in the water. …

“If I can be convinced in a reasonable way that I was wrong [in ruling it a suicide by drowning], I will change it to a homicide,” Flomenbaum says. “I am more than willing to have my mind changed. But, right now, these are exceptionally good reasons to make it a suicide. There is nothing physical that suggests someone else did this to him.”

Moreover, Flomenbaum sees no reason to change his manner-of-death ruling to “undetermined,” which would reopen the questionable-death investigation. “’Undetermined’ is usually when we have ambiguous findings at autopsy. The more I hear about the circumstances, the less ambiguous [this case] seems.”

Cyril Wecht, a Pittsburgh medical examiner who is nationally known in the field, reviewed Hinton’s autopsy report and judged it a “fairly decent report.” But Wecht also says, “I don’t understand how they call it a suicide. How does this guy go about tying these things and jumping in the water? It just doesn’t make sense.” He says most forensic pathologists would call it a homicide or undetermined, “absent information from homicide investigators that would indicate suicide.

“There is no basis to challenge [drowning as] the cause of death,” Wecht concludes. “But the manner? You have to wonder.”


On the Saturday morning after the drunken-driving arrest, Hinton could have been pondering several options. He could come clean, reporting whatever he might have known about police corruption. He could “turn” – go criminal, that is, and do what federal court documents describe the Strong as Steel organization as having had former police cadet Doncarlos Williams do: Dress up as a cop and rob rival drug dealers. Or he could take his own life.

The suicide scenario is easy enough to imagine from the standpoint of Hinton’s likely emotions. Hinton comes home that Saturday, despondent over his arrest and a possible disgraceful end to his police career. He is the great hope of the Hinton family – about to become a police officer and take his wife and kids out of the projects. But the dream has faded in the course of one extremely bad week. So he leaves a good-bye note for his wife, takes the train to New York, ties himself up, and hurls himself in the river. What raises questions for Hinton’s family are the presence of a possible murder motive, the location of Sean’s death in New York, and physical evidence they believe argues against suicide, most notably the bound wrists.

Going criminal could also have ended up with Hinton’s death, but that scenario doesn’t comport with the portrait his friends and family paint of his character. Hinton was interested in law enforcement since boyhood. He completed the Baltimore police department’s “Officer Friendly Program” and was honored with a Junior Citizen Award by the city. His friends and family say he was exceptionally reliable, loyal, and affable. He didn’t hang around on the corner when he was growing up; rather, he was always running home to be with his family. “He was kind of naïve about the world,” Robert Templeton, a friend of Hinton’s and his manager during a stint working at Pizzeria Uno at the Inner Harbor, recalls. This is not the picture of someone who enters the police department and almost immediately becomes involved in the drug trade.

So, suppose Hinton decided to come clean. That would explain the sudden flurry of off-duty paperwork a couple of days after Thomas’ arrest. The current whereabouts of the documents are not known, but the family believes Hinton must have taken them with him to work the next day. If they were police reports and Hinton turned them over to IID, then at some point he was going to have to testify about the allegations.

Francine remembers Sean saying to her, as they lay on their bed together the Saturday he disappeared, “I’m going to tell the truth. Them cops ain’t nothing but crooks. I’m going to do my time and get out of it.” She did not mention this conversation to Stanton during his investigation in late November 1992, and Stanton doesn’t recall asking the family if Hinton said anything before leaving.

Later that day, the family remembers, Sean took a long shower. He brought the phone into the bathroom with him and asked his brother Kevin, who is in a wheelchair, to get him his notebook and a pen. Kevin asked him if he still was planning to go to their sister Janet’s anniversary party that night, and Sean said yes. Then he got out of the shower, got dressed, and left the apartment, heading toward Orleans Street on foot. The family can’t recall if he said anything else.

Sean’s last call home was made from the train station. His mother, Jean, spoke with him. “When he called from Penn Station, he said he was coming home and that he wanted to talk to Granddaddy [Forrest Lee Moore], and Granddaddy was not home,” she says. Moore and Sean had worked together for a year in the late 1980s at Edenwald nursing home in Towson and had become close companions. They had been out drinking together the night before Hinton disappeared, but Moore says he doesn’t remember Sean saying anything about police corruption.

Hinton’s mysterious note can be interpreted as jibing with the come-clean theory. “I have no one,” he wrote. If was accusing a senior officer of corruption, he indeed would have been nearly alone. The IID detectives and prosecutors would protect him, but he would have few friends on the force. Whatever trouble he faced, it was police-related and he was facing it in virtual solitude.

“I need Jehovah but I just can’t seem to find him. So I guess I’ll see someone,” the note continues. As a corruption complainant ratting on cops, he would have to face the forces he was fingering eventually; perhaps he was pressured into meeting someone to discuss the charges. The pressure would have had to be severe enough to keep him cooperating – perhaps a threat to his family.

And Hinton closes his note with, “Please take care of our children for me.” As a cop-crime suspect coming clean, he figured he’d either be prosecuted, convicted, and do time, or something disastrous would happen to him at the hands of those he had exposed. Either way, he knew he’d be gone long enough that Francine would need to care for the children alone.

So Hinton went to Penn Station. No one knows what happened to him between his call home at 6:48 P.M. that Saturday and when his body was taken out of the water in New York 10 days later. It seems likely he took the train to New York, but he had no ticket stub when he was found. He did not have a credit card, and the family’s and investigators’ accounts differ on how much money Hinton had when he left home. (Francine disputes that he had enough to buy a $59 one-way ticket to New York.)

If the come-clean interpretation of the good-bye note is correct and he did meet with someone connected to corruption allegations, perhaps he was forced to accompany the person or person to New York and was told everything would be fine for everyone if he cooperated.

The killer or killers would have reasoned that, in Baltimore, a drowned 22-year-old city-police trainee would attract a lot of attention and a lot of press – and police here might quickly discern a possible murder motive. If he dies in New York, the case would probably get a lot less notice – and, with a waterlogged body and a wallet full of identification, it might look like a suicide.

The murder scenario continues like this: Arriving in New York, the party – with Hinton still cooperating – disembarks from the train without incident and heads for a desolate stretch of Manhattan waterfront. Hinton is knocked in the temple and falls unconscious without a struggle. The killers bind his wrists to make sure he can’t swim, throw him in the water, and walk away.

The come-clean scenario stand or falls with the question of when the trauma to Hinton’s head occurred. Did it happen before or after he drowned? And while the autopsy report says the skull isn’t fractured, medical examiners have missed skull fractures before.


The question of suicide versus murder would be addressed, if not cleared up, by exhumation and a second autopsy to examine whether Hinton’s head injury occurred before or after death and whether the skull is fractured. “That would cost somebody thousands of dollars and not turn up anything,” Flomenbaum says. It’s a process, though, that the family considered initiating shortly after Hinton’s funeral in November 1992.

According to Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C., attorney working on the John Wilkes Booth exhumation case currently pending before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, “It is a simple process that can be made complicated if someone wants to make it so.”

First, all immediate family members must agree to request exhumation, then approach the cemetery with their request. If the cemetery agrees, all the family needs is permission from the jurisdiction’s state’s attorney’s office and money to pay for the exhumation and examination. If the cemetery rejects the request – and that doesn’t happen in most cases, according to Zaid – the family can go to court.

Another possibility for obtaining more clues to help solve the Hinton mystery is disclosure of more reports of investigations into the circumstances surrounding his police work and his disappearance and death. The autopsy report, Hinton’s police personnel file, and Stanton’s questionable-death report have been released. As Hinton’s court-appointed representative, Francine also plans to obtain copies of documents subpoenaed (but never released) in the Eric Thomas drugs-and-firearms case: two IID files (one on the alleged Thomas burglary, the other on Hinton’s death), and records of a probe by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, including grand-jury testimony about the alleged Thomas burglary. She also intends to request all other Hinton-related police information to which her husband would be entitled if he were alive.

In New York, NYPD spokesperson Detective Julio Martinez told CP that “the case is under active investigation” and the report of its questionable-death investigation on Hinton will not be released. “Obviously, this is an unusual case and the chief of detectives is not going to comment on it until all aspects of it are cleared up,” Martinez says. He also declined a request to interview Joseph Burdick, the NYPD homicide detective who was assigned the case back in 1992.

In addition to the evidence reported here, the family’s suspicions of foul play are provoked by disputed facts, street talk, and innuendo-laden coincidences that suggest to them the documented record of Hinton’s disappearance and death is woefully inadequate. Recollections and questions about Sean are part of the Hinton’s daily routine. “There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about Sean,” his mother Jean says.

Hinton’s friends also wonder about his death. “It’s hard for me to believe it was suicide because Sean wasn’t that type of person,” Forrest Lee Moore says. He believe Sean was more likely to face his career problems and start anew than to kill himself over losing a job, especially since he was so young, so hard-working, and so easy to get along with. “If you met Sean, you would like him right off the bat,” Moore comments. “Everybody liked him.” Robert Templeton, Hinton’s friend and former boss, is more adamant: “The whole thing stinks from beginning to end,” he says.

Hinton’s family and friends continue to believe that many of their questions will eventually be answered. “Sooner or later, it’ll all come out,” Jean Hinton likes to say. But neither she nor the rest like the wait.

“I haven’t had no comfort since Sean’s been dead,” Jean laments. “That prayer didn’t get answered.”