By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Jan. 26, 2011
When 36-year-old Todd “Donnie” Duncan—a former gang-interventionist who worked for the West Baltimore nonprofit Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL)—pleaded guilty in September to federal racketeering charges, he admitted to being what his plea agreement says he is: “the overall city-wide commander” of the street-level criminal operations of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang in Baltimore. Duncan (pictured) and 14 other alleged BGF members are accused of orchestrating the gang’s drug trafficking, bribery, witness retaliation, extortion, and money laundering, both inside and outside of Maryland prisons. But during Duncan’s Jan. 20 sentencing hearing, when he rose to make a statement to U.S. District Judge William Quarles, he cast himself—and the BGF—in a different light.
“Yes, I was part of the BGF,” Duncan said, while trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears, “but it didn’t really function on the street,” adding that “the BGF had no leaders on the street because it’s too many people.” He paused to collect himself, but continued to cry, saying “the guys I dealt with, we were not bad guys,” “we weren’t about violence,” and “I believe in the justice system, I believe in right and wrong, I believe in God.” While openly copping to drug dealing, he asserted that the overall charges have been “blown out of context” by the government.
Duncan’s statements to Quarles, along with those of his lawyer, Robert Waldman, may foreshadow how the remaining BGF defendants, scheduled for trial in May, will try to contest the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges before a jury. So far, three out of the 15 have pleaded guilty, leaving 12 to take it to the jury.
Prosecutors, relying on the work of investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Baltimore-based Special Investigations Group, have painted a picture of the BGF as cloaking itself in legitimacy and the rhetoric of self-improvement and dignity while, in fact, empowering itself through a fearsome array of criminal activity (“Black Booked,” Feature, Aug. 5, 2009). A critical aspect of the BGF’s operations has been its reliance on corrupt prison guards (“Inside Job,” Feature, May 12, 2010), several of whom have pleaded guilty to helping gang members, including its alleged Maryland leader, veteran inmate Eric Brown (“Eric Marcell Brown,” Mobtown Beat, May 7, 2009), who with his wife, Deitra Davenport (“Deitra Davenport,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), published The Black Book (“The Black Book,” Mobtown Beat, May 27, 2009), a self-help guide that won kudos from local educators.
To combat the government’s version of the truth about the BGF, defense attorneys may set out to do for their clients at the upcoming trial what Waldman attempted to do for Duncan during his sentencing: cast the BGF as more of an ideological social club whose members sometimes sell a few drugs than the dire threat to public safety that the government contends.
Waldman’s soliloquy on behalf of Duncan was broken up, here and there, by Quarles’ comments, which injected facts from Duncan’s plea agreement. Yet Waldman’s points, if used before a jury instead of a judge, may have a measure of traction.
“This group really was a bunch of mostly older guys who had been incarcerated together,” Waldman said, adding that “nearly everybody” in the BGF who was no longer incarcerated “had a job.” In saying “I wouldn’t call it a social club,” Waldman suggested just that, telling Quarles the BGF was not like the “gangs that you and I know about from other cases,” that it did not engage in “turf wars,” that there were “no executions in order to expand territory.” In fact, Waldman said, there was “no indication of serious violence at all” at the hands of the BGF defendants.
Waldman also sought to differentiate BGF members who aren’t inmates from those who are, saying, “It is true that the BGF inside prisons is a nasty outfit” and that “other inmates complain about the grip that the BGF has” inside prison walls. On the outside, though, while “they sold some drugs,” Waldman contended, “they did not sell large quantities. There is no indication of bulk sales of any degree whatsoever.” They did some “selling on the side,” he said, but weren’t even very good at it; evidence in the case, Waldman pointed out, includes complaints from fellow members that it took one BGF dealer “days to sell 30 pills.”
In sum, regarding the BGF as a whole, Waldman told Quarles, “We need to keep this thing in context . . . Most of these guys were up to bad, but not a whole lot of bad.”
As for Duncan in particular, Waldman cast him as a man who was “looked up to as a guy who carried himself with integrity without swagger.” He became BGF’s street-level leader because of those qualities, Waldman explained—because “he didn’t step on toes or heads” as he was “dealing with beefs and ameliorating conflicts” on the streets. After serving 14 years in prison for two attempted second-degree murder convictions, Waldman explained, Duncan got out and started working at COIL. While Duncan “helped other fellows getting out of prison find jobs,” Waldman continued, he didn’t get them jobs at COIL, which therefore didn’t become “a nest for the BGF”—so Duncan “didn’t misuse his COIL connection in that respect, at least.” And Duncan “had no dealings with anybody inside the prisons,” the attorney added.
(As a result of Duncan’s work at COIL, he made a television appearance on a religious show, Grace and Glory, hosted by Rev. Lee Michaels, in January 2010, several months prior to his arrest.)
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wallner didn’t attempt to rebut Waldman’s broad assertions belittling the government’s charges against the BGF; presumably, he’s saving his fire for trial. Rather, he succinctly asked Quarles to sentence Duncan to 180 months in prison, given that Duncan has admitted to being the BGF’s citywide commander, to dealing drugs, to supporting the BGF’s overall racketeering enterprise—and the fact that he has two prior convictions for violent felonies, although, due to the particulars of the federal sentencing guidelines, he dodged “career offender” status, which would have enhanced his penalty.
Waldman argued that 151 months was an appropriate sentence for Duncan. “That’s a lot of time,” he told Quarles, and it “provides him the opportunity to get out and see his children before it is too late.”
Quarles asked each of Duncan’s seven loved ones in the courtroom to rise and speak—including his fiancee, with whom he has children. The fiancee mentioned that her prior partner, who fathered one of the children Duncan had helped her to raise, was deceased. When Quarles pressed her to explain the circumstances of that man’s death, she was overcome with emotion, and Quarles relented. Six other people spoke in support of Duncan. One said news coverage of the case had failed to point out “the good things he did in the community,” and another said, “I think he’s a pretty decent guy.”
As Quarles prepared to announce the sentence, he revealed more about Duncan: that he’d been arrested 17 times between the ages of 12 and 18, and that he’d faced “at least 10 other adult charges”; that he is “no stranger to the violence that often accompanies the drug trade”; that his sister had been murdered in 1993, at the age of 19; that his fiancee’s prior partner had been murdered in connection with drug violence; and that he dropped out of school in ninth grade. As for the BGF, Quarles stressed that it is “not a purely social club.” And he allowed that Duncan “has some good things going for him,” that he’s “not a big-time gangster,” and that he “did not misuse his COIL affiliation.”
With that, Quarles, noting that Duncan had narrowly “avoided career offender status,” announced a sentence of 168 months in federal prison, with a start date on May 7, 2010. When Duncan is done serving his 14 years in 2024, he will be 50 years old—and 28 of those years will have been spent behind bars.