Maryland Witness Takes Conviction One Day at a Time...
The Steven Joseph Schmitt Story
By Steven Joseph Schmitt
Edited by Barbara Jean McAtlin, Justice: Denied Staff
Steve's 17-year-old daughter, Heather, has unfailingly stood by him through
his ordeal. She has run ads on the Internet asking for help for her father.
Steve has written a myriad of organizations asking for help. Read his story.
Decide for yourself.
My name is Steven Joseph Schmitt. I'm 35 years old. In 1994, I was sentenced
to spend the rest of my life in prison for a crime I did not commit. On May
11, 1994, I was arrested and accused of killing a man on September 18, 1990,
almost four years earlier. I didn't even know I was a suspect. I thought I
was a witness!
Before I get into the specifics of the case, I would like to briefly outline
what I believe are the reasons I was charged and convicted of this crime,
although I am 100% innocent:
1) I was an easy target! I had a record. At the time of the crime, my
lifestyle could best be described as a "lowlife." I was a drunk. I used
drugs. I was living in hotels or motels in a section of town known to be
infested with drugs and prostitutes. I "worked" and hung out on the infamous
"Block," the red light district in Baltimore. I ran errands and drugs on the
Block for a living. The people with whom I associated could also be
considered "lowlifes" (dancers, drug dealers, prostitutes, drunks, drug
users). I AM NOT PROUD OF MY PAST but I can't avoid mentioning it because I
believe it's a major part of the reason I've been denied justice.
2) I was in the area when the crime occurred. The murder happened on the
opposite side of the highway about two blocks from the hotel where I was
3) I was very naive! Throughout the police investigation, I was overeager
to assist or cooperate. My "assistance" started the night the crime occurred
when I told a police officer that my girlfriend thought she had heard
gunshots. I never would have dreamed that the statements I would make over
the next four years would be twisted, edited, and taken out of context to
make it look as though I was lying and guilty of murder.
4) I was ignorant of the law. I grew up watching Perry Mason. The innocent
people were always proven innocent! At no time did I entertain the thought
that I was going to be railroaded and convicted of a crime that I had
absolutely nothing to do with. My public defender repeatedly assured me that
I had nothing to worry about.
5) A homicide needed to be cleared off of the books. The crime occurred on
September 18, 1990, but an arrest warrant wasn't issued until May 1994. As I
attempt to walk you through the case, I'll do my best to show you how the
detectives used that time to manipulate witnesses and create evidence that
did not exist!
This is what happened...
In the late evening hours and the early morning hours of September 17 and 18,
1990, I was in Essex, Maryland drinking with my best friend Anthony (Tony)
Mixter. At about 1:45 on the morning of the 18th we returned to the room we
were renting at the Pilot Hotel with my girlfriend, Nancy Reinhardt.
At approximately 2 a.m., after using the bathroom, I happened to glance out
the window. I saw several police cars at the bank on the other side of the
highway. When I told Nancy and Tony what I saw, they both said they thought
they had heard gunshots just moments earlier.
Out of curiosity, I went downstairs to the front office to see if the desk
clerk, Priscilla, knew what was going on across the highway. I told her that
Nancy had heard gunshots. When I asked Priscilla if she had heard anything,
she said she hadn't and didn't know what was going on.
While I was talking to Priscilla, I saw a police car cruising around the
hotel. When the officer drove around to the back of the hotel, I stopped her
and asked her what had happened across the highway. I also told her that my
girlfriend thought she had heard gunshots. The officer told me that someone
had been shot at the bank across the highway. Before driving away, she wrote
down my name and my mother's address. I thought I was a witness!
On October 24, 1990, I was staying about a mile from the Pilot Hotel at the
Continental Motel with Tony and Nancy. We were approached by two detectives
who questioned us about what had happened on September 18, 1990. The previous
evening, October 23, 1990, Tony had met up with an old girlfriend named
Vonnie Churma who was dancing at a bar called "The Red Room." She was also
present when the detectives came.
Since more than a month had passed since the night in question, I couldn't
really remember the events leading up to when the gunshots were heard. In my
written statement I just wrote down what I did every night of the week: I
left Baltimore Street at about 2:15 a.m. I reached the Pilot Motel at about
2:35 or 2:45 a.m. I went to the bathroom. I came out of the bathroom and saw
police lights outside the window. My girlfriend said she had heard gunshots.
I went down to the desk and asked the clerk what happened. Then I asked a
police officer what happened and told her what my girlfriend had heard. I got
to the hotel from the Block by cab. Tony's statement was almost identical to
I agreed to cooperate fully with the detectives. I also agreed to take a
polygraph test that was then scheduled for October 30, 1990. When the
detectives picked Nancy and me up to drive us to the location where the
polygraph test was to be performed, I told them I had made some mistakes in
my written statement of which they should be aware. I told them that Nancy
had reminded me that on September 17th she had been sick and hadn't gone to
work. Since it was a Monday evening and Nancy was sick, Tony and I had
decided to go to a bar in Essex to watch Monday Night Football. Nancy had
also reminded me that a guy named Jeff had brought Tony and me back to the
hotel around 1:30 or 1:45 a.m. since none of us owned a vehicle. On a typical
night we would have left the Block around 2:30 a.m. and taken a cab to our
hotel or motel room.
After we arrived at the place where I was to take the polygraph test, I spoke
briefly to the examiner. The test was then canceled. I was told it had been
canceled because I had been partying the night before. This was the last time
I heard anything about the case until my arrest almost four years later.
At the end of 1991, I violated probation on an unrelated charge and I left
Essex. I returned in March 1994 and I was arrested on May 11, 1994, for the
September 18, 1990, crime.
While I was being held at the Baltimore City Jail awaiting transfer to the
Baltimore County Detention Center, I was questioned again about the murder
case by the same detective who had questioned me years earlier. The detective
would later give an inaccurate and very misleading account of what was said
during this interrogation.
A few days after I had been transferred to the Baltimore County Detention
Center, I was assigned a Public Defender named Stuart Lyons. At his request,
I took two polygraph tests. While the first test was inconclusive, I was told
I had passed the second one.
The state's case ...
During the state's opening statement at my trial, the prosecutor told the
jury he would be presenting a witness who was at the detention center with
me. The prosecutor told them that this man was going to say that I had told
him things about the crime that nobody except investigators knew and that I
had confessed to the crime to him. The prosecutor went into great detail
about what this witness would testify to (a full three pages of the trial
transcript is devoted to this "witness") but the prosecutor never produced
I've never told this man, or anyone else, that I committed the crime of which
I'm accused! I've seen the report of what this man was supposed to testify
to; he knew things about the crime that weren't in the reports I had at that
Before the crime victim was flown to the shock trauma unit at the hospital,
an officer at the scene allegedly obtained a general description of the
assailant. This description could be me: white male, early 30s, medium length
brown hair, T-shirt, jeans.
If my public defender had presented any type of adequate defense, this
description alone could have cleared me! At the time of the crime, I was 25
and I had a goatee. I am also heavily tattooed from my shoulders to my elbows
on both arms.
In March 1994, about three and a half years after the crime, detectives
obtained a written statement from Tony's old girlfriend, Vonnie Churma. In
her statement she said (and later testified to) that she had been in my motel
room at the time of the shooting and I was not there.
She was so wrong! This is a perfect example of how evidence can be skewed and
manipulated, and, after the passage of so much time, how witnesses can easily
On cross-examination, Churma testified that she had been to only one hotel on
Pulaski Highway in her entire life. She said she had been to only one hotel
with me in her entire life and that after that one night she never saw me
All that is true, but it was at the Continental Motel on October 24, 1990,
not the Pilot Hotel on September 18, 1990. I truly believe she was
manipulated into believing the opposite. She also testified that she had
never been to the Continental Motel, but I can prove she was with Tony, Nancy
and me at the Continental Motel on October 24, 1990. Even though my public
defender didn't produce them at trial, I have police reports that prove
Churma was at the Continental Motel when Tony and I were questioned on
October 24, 1990.
On November 19, 1991, more than a year after the crime occurred, detectives
talked to James Gatch. Gatch told them (and later testified to) that in
October, only a month earlier, he had a conversation with me at a bar in
which I allegedly told him that I shot someone at a bank. About six months
before Gatch made this allegation, we had a dispute. James Gatch used to be
my neighbor and when he tried to move in with my girlfriend, we parted as
less than friends. I believe that is why he lied. I never told him or anyone
else that I had shot someone!
The prosecutor later misstated Gatch's testimony in his proffer to introduce
other evidence by adding a robbery and Pulaski Highway to it -- two elements
of the crime for which I was on trial. "James Gatch testified that the
defendant told him that he robbed and shot a guy at the ATM on Pulaski
Highway." Based on this misstatement, the prosecutor introduced other
evidence. The prosecutor also misstated this evidence in his closing
statement to the jury.
The prosecutor then introduced into evidence that there was only one shooting
and robbery on Pulaski Highway from September 18, 1990 (when the crime for
which I was on trial occurred) until October 1991 (when I allegedly told
Gatch that I shot someone at a bank). The prosecutor would later argue that
when I had told Gatch that I shot and robbed someone on Pulaski Highway it
had to have been the crime I was on trial for as there had been no other
shootings and robberies reported in that area during that time period.
Priscilla Jones, the desk clerk at the Pilot Hotel on the night of the
shooting, testified that before and after the shooting I was walking in and
out of the front office talking to her. She testified that when I walked out
the door I would be "standing right in front where I could see him straight
in front of me."
This testimony was prejudicial because it contradicts my version of what
happened that night. It contradicts my alibi. Priscilla testified that she
didn't hear the shots. I don't know how she came to the conclusion (or if she
had been "convinced") that she had seen me and talked to me before and after
the shooting, because that is not how it happened.
Immediately after the shooting on September 18, 1990, Officer Parker asked
Priscilla if she had seen a white male in his 30s wearing a T-shirt and
jeans. She gave the officer the name of John Edward Herche as someone who fit
that description. Herche was also renting a room at the Pilot. When Priscilla
testified almost four years later she said that I was the only one she
recalled seeing that evening that would fit that description. When she was
asked about John Edward Herche, she said she didn't remember.
Priscilla also testified that a couple of days after the shooting I had
called her and told her I would need for her to testify for me. Again, that
is not true! I wasn't even questioned until a month later and even then I
wasn't concerned because I had nothing to hide.
Inconsistent statements were about the only things the state didn't fabricate
in their case against me. Nancy, Tony and I had made inconsistent statements
over the years. These were honest mistakes that were sometimes prompted by
law enforcement officials. The prosecutor told the jury we were liars and
that our inconsistent statements were proof enough that we had fabricated or
concocted a story of innocence.
The female officer I had spoken to on the morning of September 18, 1990, was
not in court because she was about to deliver a baby. On the advice and
strong encouragement of my public defender I signed a stipulation saying that
if the officer were to testify she would say that I had never told her anyone
heard gunshots. (There was more to the stipulation, but this was the key
I was not happy with the stipulation, but the public defender and the judge
assured me that I would only be agreeing to how the officer would testify and
not to the truth of the matters contained in the stipulation. As the
transcript reflects, my public defender told me not to worry about it; it's
On two separate occasions during my trial the prosecutor told the jury I had
lied because in my statements I said I had told the officer that my
girlfriend had heard gunshots, but in the stipulation the officer said that I
never told her that anyone had heard gunshots.
After the stipulation was admitted into evidence, I discovered that the lead
detective in my case had testified before the grand jury two months earlier
that I had told the officer that my girlfriend had heard gunshots.
The defense's evidence ...
Although impeached with previous inconsistent statements, both Tony and Nancy
testified that I was in the hotel room with them when they heard the gunshots.
To say that the case against me was circumstantial would be an understatement.
1) There were fingerprints taken from the crime scene. They weren't mine.
2) No weapon has ever been recovered.
3) Although the prosecutor told the jury that there were no eyewitnesses,
there was an eyewitness! This eyewitness saw a black male walk over to the
bank. He then said he heard "POW, POW, POW." Three times, precisely the
number of times the victim was shot. He said that after hearing the shots he
saw a white male (the victim) limp around a car. Seconds later he said he saw
the car drive out of the parking lot, taking a course the evidence shows the
My public defender claimed he couldn't locate this witness and that the
detective who had taken the report had retired. The judge wouldn't allow the
police report that contained the witnesses' observations to be introduced or
read to the jury.
My case was not properly or fully investigated by anyone trying to defend me
or trying to prove my innocence. As a result, the jury was given a one-sided
story. The following are things that I've discovered that could have been
done -- and can still be done -- to prove my innocence:
A) Through ballistics testing it was proven that the gun that was used in the
crime of which I'm accused was used in a different shooting the evening
before. I was not accused of or even questioned about that crime. Doesn't
that seem strange? If the detectives thought I had shot someone on September
18, 1990 and it was discovered that the same gun was used to shoot someone
else a day earlier, wouldn't that make me the prime suspect in that shooting
as well? Shouldn't I have at least been questioned about it? During my trial,
one of the detectives admitted that I was not a suspect in the crime
committed with the same gun the night before, but the detective was never
asked why or why not.
In my opinion, there is only one logical explanation. The first shooting is
listed as an assault with intent to commit murder; in other words, the victim
in that case is still alive. I believe the victim was probably shown my
picture and he told the detectives that I didn't shoot him. This is the only
logical explanation that I can come up with. There has to be a reason why I
was not accused of or questioned about "the other" shooting.
I need that other case investigated. I'm not having any luck getting my hands
on any reports other than the basic crime scene reports. I can't get the
statements the first victim made or any of the other reports that could lead
to the assailant, or any of the reports that might prove I did not shoot him.
I believe that if the first shooting were to be investigated, there would
most likely be similarities (besides the use of the same gun) that would show
that the same person committed both crimes, and I was not that person.
Or, I need someone to get in touch with the victim in the other case to find
out if he was ever shown my picture or asked to identify me. (I have the name
and address of the first victim. I've written him, but he's never responded.)
While proving that I did not commit the other shooting may not prove
conclusively that I did not commit the second shooting, it does raise a
substantial doubt and could very well allow me a new trial.
This evidence was not presented at trial because my public defender failed to
investigate it and the state's attorney failed to produce it.
At my post conviction hearing, my lawyer admitted to failing to investigate
the other shooting to see if it would have helped my case. Although the judge
seemed astounded by my counsel's failure to investigate, I did not prevail on
this issue because I could not prove prejudice. I could not prove that had my
counsel investigated, he would have discovered evidence that would have
helped my case.
B) The crime I'm accused of committing occurred in 1990. In 1994, Churma said
she was in my motel room at the time the crime occurred and I wasn't. This
allowed the detectives to obtain an arrest warrant for me because she
contradicted my statement that I was in my room when the crime occurred.
About three weeks after the night in question, while staying at a different
hotel on Pulaski Highway, detectives came and questioned a friend and me. I
have a police report that shows that Churma was present when we were
questioned. If Churma was confronted with these reports, she would have to
face the fact that she made a mistake (I believe detectives manipulated her)
and I pray she would recant.
While this doesn't prove my innocence, it does take away an essential part of
the state's case and I believe it would warrant a new trial.
The detective was asked during the trial if Churma had been seen with me
after the night in question. He said she was. He was not asked when or where.
The fact that she was seen with me weeks later at a different hotel on
Pulaski Highway was not proven. The reports I have were never brought up at
I can't answer the question as to why my attorney didn't introduce the
reports. Or why he didn't directly question the detective about the reports,
or why he didn't confront Churma with them. I guess he overlooked them.
C) Less than 48 hours after the crime occurred, detectives did a fingerprint
comparison with fingerprints lifted from the crime scene and those of a man
named David Allen Baker. A week later, detectives questioned Baker. The next
day they questioned Baker's wife. Obviously, David Allen Baker was originally
the prime suspect. WHY?
Finding out why may not help prove my innocence, but it could help me get a
new trial. If I could prove that someone said they heard Baker talk about the
crime then I could show a jury there is reason to suspect someone else. Or,
if I could show a jury that the detectives or the state withheld exonerating
evidence that could have helped my case, this could also help me get a new
Why didn't my public defender investigate this other crime? I have no idea,
but I can say I don't believe he investigated the case at all.
E) The case the state presented was that I was at the hotel on one side of
the highway when the victim drove up to the bank and tried to use the ATM
machine. I quickly ran across the highway, tried to rob him, and shot him.
They coined it as basically a spur of the moment crime. That is the only way
it could be pinned on me.
Because of the reports that I've been able to get, I think I can prove that's
not how it happened.
1) At 1318 hours (1:18 p.m.) on September 17, 1990, using his Discover Card,
the victim withdrew $100 from the ATM machine at the bank.
2) At approximately 7:30 p.m. on September 7, 1990, the victim called his
ex-wife and told her he was on his way over. The victim didn't show up.
Sometime between 9 and 9:30 p.m., his ex-wife called his residence and the
answering machine was on.
3) Mike Adams, the owner of a bar located in front of the trailer park where
the victim lived, reported that he arrived at the bar at 11 p.m. The victim
was there drinking a soda. The victim had approximately $100 on him when he
left at about 1:30 a.m.
4) The victim attempted to withdraw $60 and then $100 from the ATM machine
when he was shot. He had withdrawn $100 from the same account earlier that
Facts and questions that discredit, or raises serious doubt about, the
state's spur of the moment theory:
a) The victim sat in the Bar from at least 11 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. drinking
soda; was he waiting for someone?
b) When the victim left the bar, he had about $100 on him. Why did he need
more money? Or did he?
c) When he tried to withdraw more money from the ATM machine, he first tried
to withdraw $60. When that transaction didn't go through on account of
insufficient funds, he tried to withdraw $100. Doesn't that seem strange?
d) The victim tried to withdraw money from an account he had withdrawn from
earlier that day. He had to have known there was no money in that account.
e) The location of the ATM machine was geographically out of the victim's
way. There were ATM machines closer to his trailer and the bar where he had
been. The ATM machine he used wasn't en route to his ex-wife's house even
though he had called her and told her he was on his way.
This needs to be investigated. I don't know if investigating this will prove
my innocence, but I believe it might.
Why didn't my public defender investigate this? I have no idea!
Although I'm sure there is much more, I've listed only four things that
should have been done to help me prove my innocence. These things can still
be done to help me.
I am innocent! I've lost almost seven years of my life so far. When will this
I've outlined my case the best I can. I've been open and honest. I more than
welcome any and all questions you may have. If interested, please contact me:
Steven J. Schmitt
PO Box 534
Jessup, MD 20794