A production still from the Netflix docuseries The Keepers.
When crime podcaster Brooke Gittings first heard about the Netflix docuseries The Keepers, she said she was shocked to realize that the case it covers shared a prosecutor with that of Richard Nicholas, the subject of her own highly successful Convicted podcast.
A few years before Nicolas’s murder trial in 1997, the prosecutor, Sharon May, then head of the sex-abuse unit of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, had declined to bring charges against Father Joseph Maskell. He was the priest whose alleged horrific sexual abuse of students at an all-girls Catholic school and possible involvement in a nun’s murder are at the center of The Keepers. On one episode of the show, an anonymous police detective tells filmmakers of digging up boxes of files Maskell had ordered buried in a local cemetery. In the exhumed boxes, says the detective, were nude photos of young girls—seen by him and May. Asked on camera about the evidence by The Keepers filmmakers (in episode 4), May says emphatically that she doesn’t remember it.
Gittings, who also hosts A&E’s Cold Case Files podcast, and Rachel Kamins, Nicolas’s current attorney, spoke with True Crime about where Convicted and The Keepers potentially intersect.
Sharon May prosecuted and convicted Richard Nicolas for the murder of his 2-year-old daughter Aja. In looking over all the legal files, what did you find?
Kamins: During Richard’s appeals process, his lawyers filed a motion to be able to review everything in the state’s files. As a result of what was provided at trial by the prosecutors, [many people were] suspicious—including me—that there was more that was not turned over.
Gittings: They found two letters from Sharon May and Roberta Siskind, another prosecutor. One was to Officer Hannah, the first person on the scene of crime. He was brand-new on the force. The letter (typed and signed) read:
“Since this case was the first time that you ever testified in court, we thought that you might like to have a copy of your testimony for posterity. This way your wife can see how well you did. Rumor has it that you were given a hard time about removing Aja’s body from the car. The basic rule is that you should not disturb the crime scene. We think that the basic rule is a good one and should be followed. However, the reason that you did in this case is certainly understandable.”
He removed the little girl’s body from the car instead of waiting for medical assistance. May added: “We want you to know that although moving her was not standard procedure, it turned out to be the right thing to do. Had you left her in the car, we would never have won this case.” Basically, she said to him that following protocol is a good idea, but in this case—since you broke it—we were able to convict him. So, thanks a lot.
The second letter was to the medical examiner. He had said lividity [or settling of blood in the lower part of the body post-mortem, causing discoloration] sets in a person at two hours, and that is an accurate way to determine the time of death. The letter to him read:
“You were just too marvelous. Were it not for courtroom rules and professional decorum restrictions, we could have hugged you right after you testified. The only thing that we could do was kick each other in absolute delight under the trial table. We certainly could not have asked for better.”
Lividity normally sets in six to eight hours. He said two—and that would have coincided with the state’s timeline.
[NOTE FROM REAL CRIME: According to forensic textbooks, lividity starts in 20-30 minutes, but isn’t usually observable until two hours after death. It isn’t fully in bloom until eight to 12 hours after.]
Is it common for prosecutors to send thank-you notes to witnesses who have testified in their cases?
Kamins: Is that standard operating procedure? Here, it has the appearance of impropriety, we would call it. As assistant medical examiner for the state of Maryland, it was the M.E.’s responsibility to testify about any death investigation he participated in. Sending a note is really over-the-top, and the wackiest part of it is why May would then put it in her file with the potential of being discovered.
Gittings: Let me put this out there—this isn’t the last you’ve heard about the M.E. In later episodes [of Convicted], he is going to let us know he feels, how he would testify now. You’ll also hear whether he said they found “yellow plant matter” in Aja’s stomach that “was consistent with popcorn.” (Because the prosecution said Richard, with his non-dominant hand, shot his little girl in the eye, and left her in the car in the mall parking lot while he went in and watched the movie Pinocchio—by himself.)
What else did you find in the case files?
Gittings: I also saw this in the police file: There are notes about witnesses—two of them—that heard a sound that could have been a gunshot that corroborated Richard’s timeline. The prosecution had never turned that information over to the defense.
Why were these witnesses potentially important?
Gittings: To be completely honest, I don’t know if Richard is innocent or guilty, but if I was on a jury and someone heard the sound of a gunshot at the time Richard said a gun was fired, that would give me some doubt. If I was on jury and convicted someone of murder and then found out there was a witness that may have corroborated his innocence, I would feel terrible.
What was the word around Baltimore about Sharon May?
Gittings: Before I heard about The Keepers, I had not thought to investigate that because I was just looking at her actions in Richard’s trial. But now I’m looking into it. I’m not finished with my research, but I’ve been given some trial names that might be interesting. I plan in a later episode [of Convicted] to share what I find about May’s history of presenting evidence.
Kamins: A big issue in The Keepers—which I only know from media reports—is whether or not Sharon supposedly had actually seen with her own eyes this evidence [of the exhumed pornographic photos] and then denied it.
To me, the bigger issue is that she declined to prosecute. She was the one to make the decision of when to bring the case, and she declined to prosecute—which, based on what we know now from The Keepers, is rather stunning. So, there’s a question of whether there was collusion or political reasons for declining to bring those charges. To say she doesn’t bring a case unless it’s airtight is not the standard the government usually uses to bring a case. That falls flat, to my ears at least.
Brooke, did you talk to Sharon May?
Gittings: I reached out to her several times. I did get one email back, before Convicted was even released. I’m human and therefore biased, but I have tried to present both sides of Richard’s case. All the defense attorneys who are living have talked to me. I felt like it would give the prosecution more weight to hear from them. I got an email politely declining. [I think] she didn’t want to talk to me because she didn’t want to help Richard potentially get a new trial. Then, after The Keepers came out and I realized the correlation, I reached out again. There was no response.
I don’t blame her. If I don’t like something, I put it out of my mind. Though, of course, I’m not saying her silence makes her guilty.
For more, listen to Convicted Episode 7 (which will be posted here once available).
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(Image: Courtesy of Netflix)