Convicted Bel Air lawyer hits setback on appeal

May 01, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

Lester V. Jones, the prominent Bel Air attorney who served about six months of an 18-month sentence after a 1992 conviction on income tax evasion charges, says he is trapped between federal and state laws governing trial instructions on "beyond reasonable doubt."

Because of his conviction, which is under appeal, Mr. Jones no longer can practice law in Maryland.

Mr. Jones, 61, is a former Baltimore County prosecutor who served in the House of Delegates from 1966 to 1975 before opening his practice in Harford County.

He suffered what he called an expected setback recently when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., agreed with a lower court decision and denied a new trial.

The next step for him, Mr. Jones said last week, is the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal court records show that a grand jury indicted Mr. Jones on Oct. 18, 1990.

His case was tried July 1, 1991, and Judge Marvin J. Garbis declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict on the charges that Mr. Jones had underreported income of about $120,000 in 1983 and $170,000 in 1984.

The resulting tax liability with interest and penalties was about $135,000.

Evidence at the retrial, which began April 1, 1992, indicated that Mr. Jones had made purchases of luxury items totaling $173,800 in 1983 and $237,000 in 1984, despite having reported his taxable income to be about $50,000 in each of those years.

Mr. Jones was convicted and began his prison sentence Jan. 5, 1993. He has repaid the tax liability.

Stephen H. Sachs, Mr. Jones' lawyer, had requested at the April 1992 trial that the U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore be given instructions clarifying "reasonable doubt."

Mr. Sachs' appeal on behalf of Mr. Jones also focused on the fact that Mr. Sachs' closing argument was "limited" by Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert N. Maletz.

Mr. Jones did not testify at his retrial and no defense witnesses were called. Mr. Sachs rested his defense on the issue that prosecutors had failed to prove Mr. Jones' intent "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Since his indictment Mr. Jones has never contested the amount of his understated tax returns.

He has maintained that he gave all relevant information to his tax preparer, Ronald Dochter, a Bel Air business consultant who boasted that he could dramatically reduce Mr. Jones' tax obligations.

Mr. Jones also said that at the time he was preoccupied with the serious illness of his wife and with a hectic, chaotic legal practice, and relied on his office staff and Mr. Dochter to prepare accurate returns.

Last week, Mr. Jones explained that most federal districts do allow juries to be instructed on reasonable doubt.

Mr. Jones cited a June 2, 1993, report in the New York Times about a murder conviction that was unanimously overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article stated that, in the written opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia, a criminal conviction is invalid, if regardless of the evidence, the judge did not instruct the jury properly on finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Maryland law does require that criminal juries receive instructions on reasonable doubt, and the crux of the instructions used by Harford Circuit judges follows a standard version accepted throughout the state.

It reads, in part:

"Reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense, a doubt that a reasonable person has after carefully weighing all of the evidence. It is a doubt which would cause a person to hesitate to act in a matter of importance."

Reasonable doubt instructions also state:

"In a criminal case, the burden is at all times on the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The law does not require that the government prove guilt beyond all possible doubt."

Mr. Jones said that it is reasonable to doubt that he intended to falsely state his taxable income.

A new trial -- with a jury instructed on the reasonable doubt issue -- could mean an acquittal and lead to his practicing law again.

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