A federal jury convicted nine men yesterday of conspiring to distribute heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic blamed for the deaths of 30 people in Maryland last year.
Each could receive a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole if prosecutors are able to prove the men could have foreseen that people would die from using fentanyl, which is known on the street as China White.
"We definitely are on record as claiming that this group's fentanyl killed the 30 people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent J. Gurney, who prosecuted the federal case along with Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Jill J. Myers.
The jury of six women and six men deliberated over five days in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before convicting all nine defendants on the conspiracy charge. The verdict followed a six-week trial before Judge Frederic N. Smalkin.
Jurors were unable to agree, however, on charges that one of the defendants, Carlos Ortiz, 27, of New York City, was a drug kingpin. Judge Smalkin declared a mistrial on the kingpin charge, and he set sentencing on the other counts for June 14.
Besides Ortiz, those convicted were Henry "Kenny" Jones, 25, and Frankie Sanchez, 28, of New York; and Turonn Lewis, 25, Male Lewis, 31, Michael Moore, 23, Adrian Scott, 20, Ronald Williams, 22, and Arnold "Putt" Murdock, 20, all of Baltimore.
Most of the defendants showed no emotion as the jury forewoman recited their verdicts, but Jones shook his head during the announcement. He and Turonn Lewis remained seated after the jury was dismissed, despite the customary rule that parties rise when jurors enter and leave the courtroom.
William S. Little, Williams' defense attorney, said he is convinced the defendants did not know how deadly their fentanyl was.
"They knew they had something different," said Mr. Little, whose client had pleaded not guilty. "They didn't really know what fentanyl was or what it could do. I don't think anybody could figure out what the proper dosage was that wouldn't be terminal."
Fentanyl is sold commercially to hospitals as an anesthetic for surgical procedures.
The synthetic drug is a white crystalline powder that produces an intense euphoria, but is dozens of times more potent than heroin. A grain the size of a pinhead can cause respiratory arrest.
Mr. Gurney said he would have to prove that each defendant would have known that his activities would lead to deaths.
"We're going to argue that it was foreseeable," he said. "Everybody here knows or should have known that this was a dangerous, extremely toxic drug."
Mr. Gurney said the defendants distributed "hundreds of thousands of dollars" worth of fentanyl in the Baltimore area weekly until the conspiracy ring was broken up last May.
The prosecution's case was based on thousands of wiretapped telephone conversations among members of the conspiracy.
More than 100 of those calls were played to the jury, with Baltimore Police Detective William M. Burley IV as the key witness.
Detective Burley testified during the trial that the group operated from a network of Columbia apartments, which he called "stash houses."
Howard Circuit Judge James B. Dudley last year approved the two-month wiretap investigation. The probe involved Baltimore and Howard County police and the FBI, whose photographers took pictures of defendants entering and leaving the apartments.
The conspirators spoke in codes and used nicknames on the phone, investigators said. Police used the wiretaps to learn the locations of two drug couriers who were arrested with fentanyl.
Forty-one people have been indicted on federal and state charges of participating in the conspiracy.