Letter tipped suspect about arrest plan Lawyer's solicitation in slaying case gave man time to flee

Officers imperiled, police say

Business practice is not illegal under state law

December 03, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

The man charged last week in the slaying 13 years ago of an Ellicott City woman learned of his impending arrest from a lawyer hoping to represent him in the case and fled before surrendering to authorities.

Howard County police and prosecutors expressed outrage yesterday at an action they say could have undermined the investigation of Kenneth Allen White and endangered the lives of investigators.

"What if the individual decided to have a violent reaction, shoot through the door?" said Sgt. Steven E. Keller, spokesman for Howard County police, which helped serve the warrant with Lebanon County, Pa., police.

White, 47, received a letter from Columbia attorney Gregory Nugent telling him he had been charged with a crime in Howard County and might need representation, according to police. The letter was generated by a service that combs court records for a fee and sends out notices advertising legal representation to people charged with crimes.

Though this service is legal in Maryland, the letter caused trouble, police said, because the warrant was issued four days before officers arrested White and charged him in the slaying of Sandra Lee Taylor, and the service was able to notify White ahead of time.

Nugent, who recently moved from Illinois where he was a prosecutor for seven years, said yesterday he didn't think what he did was wrong. He said that he knows other attorneys who use similar services and that he learned of the service through a newspaper advertisement.

He ordered 32 letters sent to potential clients and eventually received a phone call from White, he said. But Nugent, who said he isn't representing White, refused to discuss his conversation with White or when it happened.

Nugent also said he didn't know whether the warrant had been served when the letter was sent.

The letter, dated Nov. 21, the day after the warrant was issued, begins: "It has come to my attention through the records of the District Court that you have been charged with a crime." Without referring to the specific charge, the letter urges White to retain an attorney -- Nugent.

Nugent, 35, who started practicing law in Maryland a month ago, said yesterday, "I can understand that police are upset, but I don't want to get sandbagged."

But Assistant State's Attorney Bernard Taylor said he has a serious problem with lawyers who would use such tactics.

"Lawyers who do this should think about consequences of getting a client" at the risk of "a dead cop somewhere," Taylor said.

On Nov. 24, Howard County police and Lebanon County police '' went to White's home in Lebanon to arrest him. But instead of surprising the suspect, they found his brother standing outside the apartment door.

The brother told police that White had learned of his impending arrest through the letter from the lawyer and was hiding, police said. Investigators then persuaded the brother to find White and urge him to surrender to authorities.

That evening, White surrendered to Lebanon city police. White, an unemployed truck mechanic, has been charged with first-degree murder in the 1985 death of Taylor, 31. Taylor's body was discovered in a Howard County streambed in 1995 by state environment workers.

Police said that White, who had long been suspected by investigators, was seen with Taylor on the evening of her death at a local bar. Investigators only recently discovered evidence needed to make an arrest, police said.

White remains in jail in Lebanon County, awaiting an extradition hearing.

The events that led to White's notification began when the warrant was issued Nov. 20. After a Howard District Court commissioner signed the warrant for White's arrest, the information was added to the public database almost immediately.

Todd Taylor, senior assistant county solicitor and counsel for the Howard County police, said the only way to prevent something like this from happening is to have the warrant sealed by a judge. That can be a time-consuming process, Taylor said, involving a hearing, and police didn't think it was necessary in this case.

"They didn't think it would go in so fast and Mr. Nugent could get a letter out so fast," Taylor said.

It is unclear whether Nugent could be subject to penalties or discipline under the code that governs attorneys. The part of the code that deals with client-seeking does not prohibit targeted mailings or contain references to the timing of those letters.

Taylor said those letters have to stop, and his organization -- Legal Advisors to Maryland Chiefs of Police -- is lobbying legislators and trying to find ways to halt such solicitations.

This is not the first time this has happened in Maryland. In Prince George's County during the past five months, officers have confronted at least five suspects who received similar mailings, said Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell. Police recovered three letters from lawyers addressed to people wanted for crimes ranging from murder to rape to robbery.

"It's a takeoff of ambulance chasing [by attorneys], only this time we're putting lives in danger," Farrell said.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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