Lawyers fault 'pathetic' tactics used to defend Price TV appearance called mistake

September 10, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers and Dennis O'Brien | Carol L. Bowers and Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writers

Criminal defense attorneys are blasting the lawyers for Ronald Walter Price, saying that they never should have let him go on BTC national television to tell his sex-with-students story and that they mishandled the case after he did.

"I think they buried their own client," E. Thomas Maxwell, a Baltimore lawyer, said yesterday.

"What went on in this case was just pathetic," agreed T. Joseph Touhey, a Glen Burnie lawyer. "It was the worst handling of a case I've seen in 28 years."

Jonathan Resnick and Timothy F. Umbreit, Price's attorneys, scorned the criticism, which they noted came 20 hours after the verdict.

"I've laughed," Mr. Resnick said. "I thought their remarks were silly and childish, that it smells of jealousy. I'd rather be a quarterback than a Monday-morning quarterback."

Lawyers statewide sharply criticized the decision to let the 48-year-old former Northeast High School teacher appear on "Geraldo!" last spring and admit the offenses. Many couldn't understand why the lawyers entered an insanity plea then withdrew it the day of the trial.

"If you're going to go forward with an insanity defense, you ought to be sure of it before you go public with it," said Richard M. Karceski of Towson.

Mr. Umbreit and Mr. Resnick, whose practice has been primarily in civil cases, white-collar crime and bankruptcy, countered that they had reasons for everything they did and dismissed speculation that they were overwhelmed by such a high-profile criminal case.

"When did we bury our client? When he confessed?" Mr. Umbreit asked. "His confession made his defense damn near impossible."

For example, the lawyers said, they had evidence of a psychological disorder but couldn't prove that it impaired Price's ability to distinguish between right and wrong, a key element in ++ an insanity defense.

Criminal cases are "not my specialty" Mr. Umbreit, 40, conceded. But he said he has "made more than [his] fair share of appearances in criminal court."

Mr. Resnick, 36, described himself as "a litigator" who does mostly civil cases, including "a tremendous amount of defense work."

Mr. Maxwell, who represented Patricia Emory, former principal of Severna Park Elementary School, is one of the few attorneys who have used news media coverage to advantage after a client was charged.

On his advice, Mrs. Emory, who was charged with being a drug kingpin, granted newspaper and television interviews to state her case and to claim that the state had little evidence against her.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee dismissed the charges against Mrs. Emory a few weeks later, agreeing that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute her.

In a big case, advance publicity places more pressure on prosecutors to go to trial and win a conviction. In smaller cases, it can provide them with more evidence, experts say.

"It just inflames passions, and it makes it harder for a prosecutor to look objectively at the benefits of taking a plea to a lesser charge," said Peter O'Neill, a Glen Burnie defense attorney.

"I understand what everybody's saying," Mr. Umbreit said. "If you kept it quiet, you would have gotten a better deal."

But the lawyers said Price was more concerned with exposing problems in the Anne Arundel County school system than with a deal.

"If Ron Price can say anything, he put the students above his own interests," Mr. Umbreit said.

Mr. Umbreit and Mr. Resnick, 1981 graduates of the University of Baltimore Law School who have been partners for about two years, said their client was eager to get his story out. He admitted his crime to police on the day he was arrested, which hurt his case much more than any news interview, they said.

Lawyers who sat in the courtroom said that the mistakes weren't confined to the publicity factor, but were apparent in the way the defense team handled the trial.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life," a Baltimore lawyer said. "Everybody I've talked to was appalled. There wasn't really apparent plan of defense. It didn't seem like they had a game plan, and to play around with the plea without having the experts lined up before-hand. . . ."

Prosecutors said the publicity didn't make it more difficult for them to try the case, but rather steeled the victims' resolve to testify.

Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler said that if a defendant apologizes to the victim, it can "make all the difference in the world" in the case's outcome. "If there's some remorse, it makes things easier," he said. "I didn't see any of that here."

Price did apologize, in several TV interviews, for hurting anyone.

Assistant State's Attorney William C. Mulford II, who prosecuted the case, said his main concerns were with the victims.

"It wasn't the publicity I was concerned with; it was more a matter of do the victims want to go forward, should the case go forward," he said.

Mr. Mulford said Price's decision, announced publicly, to be tested for the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, along with statements by one of Price's lawyers on television that his victims had not been virgins, just enraged the victims and made them more willing to testify. News of a possible movie deal also hurt the defense, he said.

"The knowledge that there was a . . . deal and that these victims could lose every shred of privacy they could have -- it just made them more ready and willing to go forward," he said.

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