Federal sentence salvages city case

Co-defendant freed after trial delayed 7 times gets 17 years

Spurred court reform effort

June 22, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A man set free after Baltimore judges and prosecutors bungled the armed robbery and carjacking case against him received a 17-year federal prison sentence yesterday for a crime spree in Northeast Baltimore.

The stiff sentence given to Kevin Cox salvaged a high-profile case that infuriated a community and led to immediate calls for reform of Baltimore's court system.

Federal agents re-arrested Cox and a co-defendant after The Sun detailed how the city court system failed to bring the two to justice -- and sent them back to the street.

The cases against Cox, 28, and Christopher Wills, 32, were delayed seven times in Baltimore Circuit Court over the span of more than a year.

Then a circuit judge tossed out the charges, ruling that city prosecutors had held a key court hearing without the defendants and violated Wills' constitutional rights by failing to bring him to trial on time.

In February, federal authorities took over the case and re-arrested the men on charges of carjacking, weapons offenses and violation of the federal Hobbs Act because they robbed a supermarket that was engaged in interstate commerce.

Yesterday, Cox was declared a career offender in federal court because he had two felony convictions -- for burglary and drug distribution -- on his record. That enabled U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin to give Cox a 17-year sentence without parole.

"Career offenders in the federal system are subject to tremendous penalties," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who prosecuted the case. "It's quite a shock for people who have been in and out of the state system."

Cox's partner, Wills, is scheduled to be sentenced July 14. He also faces a long prison sentence.

Baltimore prosecutors and judges botched the case by holding a key postponement hearing without Wills and Cox and failing to bring Wills to trial within the state's 180-day "speedy trial" limit.

After the dismissals, the case came to symbolize the inability of city court officials to bring violent criminals to justice, prompting federal prosecutors and the FBI to make a case of their own. Both men pleaded guilty in March to the federal charges.

Cox and Wills terrorized the Northeast Baltimore community of Ramblewood on April 20, 1996. They stormed into the Super Pride market on East Northern Parkway, waving a pistol and demanding cash.

Looking for a getaway car, they approached the Cook family, who were on their way to a birthday party on Glenkirk Road.

One man pointed a pistol at Karen Cook's head and ordered her to hand over the keys. She was so frightened, she ran from the car without realizing she had taken the keys.

The men then scaled a fence and ran to the 5900 block of Leith Walk, where they spotted a car outside Lucy Randolph's house.

They barged into her home, punched her mentally disabled son in the face and stole her car keys. Two neighbors tried to stop the men, but Cox and Wills jumped into Randolph's Mercury Cougar and sped away.

With police in pursuit, the men crashed the Cougar onto the lawn of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. A few blocks away, police shot Wills and arrested both men, charging them with armed robbery and other crimes.

The case fell apart in circuit court, where a series of delays violated their right to a "speedy trial" within 180 days of their arraignments. Court records show that Wills openly demanded a trial four times, only to be returned to jail and ordered to wait.

On Nov. 5, 1997, a judge dismissed the charges against Wills and Cox, saying that city prosecutors had held a key October 1996 hearing without them that pushed their trial date beyond the state's 180-day deadline.

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals overturned the dismissal and ordered the judge to hold another hearing to fully explore what happened. In November 1998, after a second hearing, the judge again dismissed the charges against Wills.

But because Cox didn't show up for court that day, the state charges against him remained in effect.

City prosecutors later dropped the charges against Cox.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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