A court-appointed special prosecutor has proposed federal criminal contempt charges against two assistant Baltimore County attorneys who are alleged to have hidden evidence from plaintiffs in a 1987 civil case against county police.
W. Neil Eggleston, the special prosecutor, filed the "superseding notice of charges" against James G. Beach 3rd and John A. Austin in U.S. District Court in Baltimore late Friday.
On Feb. 6, Judge Joseph C. Howard quietly filed a letter that announced his intention to pursue such proceedings.
The action stems from a civil suit against the county filed by the parents of James Buffington, who hanged himself in an isolated area of the Wilkens District police lockup March 19, 1987.
Eggleston alleged in his notice that Beach and Austin "willfully and knowingly" withheld witness statements from the Buffingtons' attorneys in violation of a court order and "in criminal contempt of court."
The special prosecutor also proposed charging the two with "corruptly" obstructing and impeding justice in the civil case.
Howard has scheduled a show cause hearing March 26 to determine whether he will try Beach and Austin on the proposed criminal charges.
The judge cited Beach and Austin for civil contempt in mid-1989 and fined them $6,785 each in the negligence and wrongful death case filed by David and Barbara Buffington, of Catonsville.
However, the fines and civil citations were reversed last summer by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The appellate panel said Howard erred in citing Beach and Austin for civil contempt. It remanded the contempt issue and fines to Howard for reconsideration.
Howard appointed Eggleston as a special prosecutor in 1989 to investigate possible misconduct by Beach and Austin after the Buffingtons' attorneys, William F. Gately and Daniel W. Whitney, complained that the county lawyers had violated a court discovery order by withholding evidence damaging to the defense.
Eggleston investigated the plaintiffs' claims and made recommendations to the judge. Howard sealed those recommendations and cited Beach and Austin for civil contempt, indicating that he did not take more serious action because it might ruin their careers.
In November and January, after the 4th Circuit's decision, Eggleston filed other documents in the case. They, too, are sealed from public view.
But the fact that Eggleston filed a "superseding" notice Friday suggests that he had filed similar charges earlier and that the current document updates his earlier recommendation to the judge.
The special prosecutor said in the new notice that Beach and Austin repeatedly ignored the judge's Feb. 17, 1988, discovery order in the Buffington case, even after county police found new evidence about James Buffington's death.
Eggleston charged that Beach and Austin "willfully and knowingly" withheld information they should have shared with the plaintiffs' lawyers, including witness statements obtained by police from other detainees who were in the Wilkens lockup when Buffington committed suicide.
Police obtained those statements between the first trial in late 1988, which ended with a deadlocked jury, and a second trial in early 1989. The second jury awarded the Buffingtons $185,000 in compensatory damages.