Federal sentencing caps a case bungled in Baltimore court

July 15, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A man freed last year because city prosecutors and judges bungled the armed robbery and carjacking case against him received a 12-year federal prison sentence yesterday for his brief but violent crime spree in Northeast Baltimore in 1996.

During an emotional hearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Christopher Wills, 32, tearfully told the judge he accepted the consequences of his conduct and wanted to say he was sorry to the victims and his family.

"First and foremost, I'd like to apologize to everyone who was affected by my actions in 1996," Wills said in the third-floor courtroom, his fiance sobbing as she sat a few rows back.

U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin -- one of the most conservative judges on the bench in Baltimore -- called Wills a bright, articulate man with a promising future before he got "off track" and committed a series of crimes.

Criticizing federal guidelines that remove sentencing discretion from judges, Smalkin gave Wills 14 years -- 10 months less than federal prosecutors recommended -- and credit for the two years he sat in jail, waiting for a city trial on the robbery and carjacking charges that never took place.

Trial postponed

Wills was freed late last year after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that his right to a "speedy" trial had been violated. Wills, acting virtually as his own lawyer, openly demanded a trial several times, once pleading with a judge.

"Your Honor, I am asking you today, please, may I have a trial?" Wills asked Judge Joseph P. McCurdy on June 18, 1997, more than a year after he was arrested. McCurdy postponed the case again.

After details of the case were reported by The Sun in February, Wills and his co-defendant, Kevin Cox, were arrested by FBI agents and charged with federal crimes stemming from the spree.

Yesterday's sentence -- and the 17-year prison term Cox received last month -- salvaged a high-profile case that came to symbolize the shortcomings of the city's court system and prompted immediate calls for reforms. The courthouse has come under attack for failing to try suspects on time and, more recently, for neglecting to disclose evidence to defendants and their lawyers, resulting in a wrongful murder conviction and freedom for criminal suspects.

During a 20-minute soliloquy yesterday, Wills told Smalkin that he had thrown his life away and wondered whether it was too late to change his ways. He said he grew up as a smart kid who had strong support from a caring mother.

"Where was it that you got off track?" Smalkin asked him.

Wills told him that after going to a preparatory school in Pennsylvania at age 18, he drifted into a life of crime -- forgery, auto theft and robbery. During the past 18 years, he has been arrested 30 times, court records show.

"I was supposed to be a lawyer. I was supposed to be a doctor. I was very athletic," Wills told the judge. "Now, I'm none of those things."

On April 20, 1996, he and Cox robbed the Super Pride market on East Northern Parkway and then forced a family from their car at gunpoint. After the driver of the car fled with the keys, the two men stormed into a nearby home, punched a mentally disabled man in the face and stole his mother's car.

Police caught Wills and Cox several blocks away. They shot Wills and arrested both men. The case fell apart in Circuit Court in Baltimore, where a series of delays violated their right to a trial within 180 days of their arraignments.

Court records show that Wills openly requested a trial four times, only to be told by judges to continue to wait in jail.

In November 1997, a city judge dismissed the charges, but an appeals court ordered another hearing. At that hearing a year later, the judge again dismissed the charges.

Both men were arrested by the FBI in February, charged with federal gun crimes, carjacking and violating the Hobb's Act, which covers robberies of businesses that deal in interstate commerce, such as the Super Pride.

Difficult decision

Smalkin noted that Wills won his case in the city, only to be charged in the same crime by the federal government.

Because of the amount of attention being placed on the city courthouse in recent months, he said, "we might be seeing more federal cases" coming to the federal courthouse.

To try to sway the judge, Wills' fiance and his daughter's school counselor testified on his behalf. Wills then asked the judge to consider his life, how he has accepted responsibility for his crimes, and how much he means to his family and two children.

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