Prosecutors increasingly rely upon federal charges

April 09, 1994|By Jay Apperson and Marcia Myers | Jay Apperson and Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writers

Anyone wondering why prosecutors dropped murder charges against the chief suspect in the fatal shooting of 10-year-old Tauris Johnson should consider the case of Adewale "Jay" Aladekoba and his Jamaican Black Mafia.

The Aladekoba case illustrates the benefits to prosecutors in putting aside local murder charges while pursuing the allegations as part of a federal drug trial -- the strategy that appears to have been chosen in the Tauris Johnson case.

During Aladekoba's federal trial, prosecutors were allowed to show his involvement in three murders in the context of his drug activities. That probably would not have been allowed under the more restrictive rules of evidence in state courts.

The result: Aladekoba received multiple, no-parole life terms for conspiring to distribute heroin in Baltimore housing projects -- a longer sentence than any he likely would have received in state court. The federal prosecution also rendered the local charges moot, saving the expense of a state trial.

"A prosecutor looking to put somebody away for a long time would rather have them in the federal system," said Gerard P. Martin, president of the Federal Bar Association, Maryland chapter.

From what authorities are saying -- and not saying -- a similar strategy is at work in the prosecution of paroled New York drug dealer Nathaniel J. Dawson, suspected in the Tauris Johnson slaying and indicted on federal drug charges.

While dropping murder charges against Dawson last week in state court, Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Ilene J. Nathan noted that federal authorities have taken up the investigation. Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms refused to spell out his strategy but maintained that the investigation was being pursued "with vigor."

U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia wouldn't discuss Dawson's federal trial. But she said cooperation among federal, state and local authorities on the case reflects a new way of doing business, including joint decisions on where some cases are prosecuted.

Dawson's lawyer, Paul M. Polansky, expects the murder allegations to be aired in the federal drug trial. "They're not letting him go," he said, declining to comment further.

Dawson, 24, is charged federally with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. If convicted of conspiring to distribute large quantities of drugs, he could be sentenced to life in prison. The federal system does not provide for parole.

Tauris Johnson was killed Nov. 4, shot once in the head while playing football in the street near his East Baltimore home. His death became emblematic of drug-related violence on Baltimore's streets.

A month after Tauris was killed, Dawson, alias Jack Steele, was arrested at an apartment in the Bronx. Police and federal agents said they seized three pounds each of cocaine and marijuana, along with an arsenal of weapons -- including 11 handguns, a sawed-off shotgun and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.

Lawyers this week offered several reasons for prosecutors to drop local charges and pursue allegations of violent conduct in a federal drug trial. Prosecutors have nothing to lose and much to gain, they said.

"There's no harm done by letting that case be dismissed" because the charges could be brought again later, said Michael E. Kaminkow, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. Prosecutors may not have developed sufficient evidence to win a murder conviction in state court, he added.

A dead eyewitness certainly hasn't helped the prosecution efforts. A woman who allegedly ran a "stash house" for Dawson was shot dead in February.

Ms. Nathan said the witness slaying had nothing to do with the decision to drop charges, and authorities have said they have another eyewitness. But the killing must have heightened concerns about whether others would be willing to testify.

Federal prosecutors have access to greater witness protection resources than local prosecutors.

Mr. Kaminkow and other lawyers said that prosecutors in state court may have faced problems presenting to a jury the alleged circumstances surrounding the shooting -- that the boy was killed when caught in the cross fire between Dawson and a rival drug dealer.

The defense certainly would have tried to limit evidence of Dawson's alleged drug activity, citing case law designed to restrict evidence of "other crimes" that could be prejudicial to the defendant, said Mr. Kaminkow.

But less restrictive rules of evidence in federal court would likely allow prosecutors to present a more complete picture of the case. In fact, details of the slaying and the subsequent investigation are described in an affidavit filed by a federal drug investigator three weeks ago and contained in Dawson's federal court file.

Some of Mr. Kaminkow's points were echoed by Ty Cobb, a former federal narcotics prosecutor now in private practice; Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, and Mr. Martin of the federal bar group.

Another issue raised, but gingerly, is the perception among lawyers that federal juries -- drawn from throughout the state -- are more apt to side with the prosecution than Baltimore juries, whose members often have had experiences that can make them distrustful of police.

Other benefits cited for concentrating prosecutorial efforts at the federal level include greater resources for investigations and smaller caseloads than at the overburdened local level.

Ms. Battaglia, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland, said a new Violent Traffickers Project organized by the her office is bringing representatives of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies together to share information about violent offenders and to avoid duplicating efforts.

"That's what you're seeing in the Dawson situation," Ms. Battaglia said. "We're all working very closely together."

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