In the Wrong Hands: “Serious, disturbing problem” complicates federal heroin case

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Mar. 2, 2011

An inmate awaiting trial in a federal heroin case has improperly obtained copies of portions of the evidence in the case, a prosecutor’s letter contends, and the inmate has been using the documents to convince co-defendants to change their minds and not plead guilty, as they’d intended.

The breach in the case’s discovery agreement—under which the government shares evidence with defense attorneys in preparation for trial, with the caveat that the defendants themselves do not obtain copies—calls to mind a similar situation that law enforcers say ended with the 2009 murder of a federal witness in Westport, Kareem Kelly Guest (“Snitched Out,” Mobtown Beat, June 9, 2010).

The letter, written Feb. 11 to U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Sippel, regards a heroin-conspiracy case indicted last June against nine co-defendants, including legendary Baltimore gangster Walter Louis Ingram (“Old Folks’ Boogie,” Mobtown Beat, July 22, 2010). Sippel does not name the defendant who obtained the evidence, but asks Motz to postpone the scheduled April trial in the case “so that the situation . . . can be resolved.” Sippel wrote:

A serious, disturbing problem has developed that has caused a delay in the plea negotiation process. In late January, undersigned counsel learned that one of the defendants was provided portions of the discovery materials and is/was maintaining the hard copy in his jail cell. Based on our investigation, we have learned that the defendant in possession of the discovery materials has reviewed the materials with other defendants and has convinced many defendants to change their minds about pleading guilty. Many of the defense lawyers who discussed plea options with their respective clients and believed their respective clients were going to enter into a plea agreement now report that their respective clients are no longer interested in pleading guilty.

Defense attorneys in the case express differing views on the nature of the problem. “There was no actual discovery found” in the defendant’s possession, Ingram’s attorney, Benjamin Sutley, said, adding that it appears the inmate “was blowing smoke other defendants’ way.” But Edward Smith, who represents defendant Curtis Connor, said, “Whoever it is, has it,” regarding the discovery material—while hastening to add that it can’t be his client, who is on supervised release pending trial.

Marcia Murphy, spokesperson for the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a Feb. 25 e-mail that “we are investigating” the breach and that, other than what’s stated in Sippel’s letter, “We have no other comment.” She did not respond to a request for information about whether there had been suspected discovery breaches in any other recent cases.

The repercussions of the prior discovery violation that allegedly resulted in Guest’s 2009 killing are still being felt. In December, Antonio “Mack” Hall was indicted for murdering Guest (The News Hole, Dec. 3, 2010); his six-week death-penalty trial is scheduled to start in March 2012. Meanwhile, a woman accused last year of obstructing justice and lying to a federal grand jury about Guest’s murder, Raine Zircon Curtis (“Street Rules,” Mobtown Beat, July 14, 2010), remains detained pending a trial that has yet to be rescheduled after its initially scheduled start date in November 2010 came and went.

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