Former officer to be tried in robberies of immigrants

Plea agreement illegal after court's decision

August 10, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A former Baltimore police officer who pleaded guilty to robbing an immigrant will now stand trial for his alleged crimes -- a surprise turnabout in a case that ignited controversy in the city's Hispanic community.

Dorian J. Martin, 25, withdrew his guilty plea yesterday after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that a recent decision by Maryland's highest court made the proposed sentence illegal.

He will be tried Nov. 3.

Hispanic activists, who had gathered outside the downtown courthouse yesterday to protest Martin's plea agreement because they thought it was too lenient, hailed the development as a victory. "We think there will be justice now," said Hector Portillo, a 23-year-old native of El Salvador, who is one of three immigrants Martin is accused of robbing last winter.

"A higher power has intervened in this matter," said Angelo Solera, vice chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs. "The Lord is with us."

For months, activists have pressed for strict punishment of Martin. They say the victims were taken advantage of because they don't speak English fluently. More disturbing, they say, is that many immigrants in the community thought they had left police oppression behind in the Central and South American countries where they had lived.

`Prepared to dig in'

Martin's attorney, Warren A. Brown, said a trial will be a chance for his client to clear his name. He said Martin is innocent and pleaded guilty to avoid jail time.

"We are certain that after the dust settles and the smoke clears, Mr. Martin will be vindicated," Brown said. "He is prepared to dig in and go the whole nine yards."

Martin, who resigned after the allegations in December, is accused of using his badge to rob three Hispanic immigrants of more than $900. He had acknowledged seizing $160 from one victim, who he said taunted him with the money while being questioned on a street corner. Martin said he put the money in his pocket, but then was summoned to an emergency call. He said he tried to find the man after the call to return the cash, but was unsuccessful.

He denies involvement in the other two cases.

Martin pleaded guilty to one count of felony robbery July 8. The plea bargain called for a three-year suspended prison sentence, a three-year term of probation and, as part of the probation, 120 days of home confinement.

Court of Appeals ruling

But the Court of Appeals issued a ruling Wednesday that Baltimore courts can't order house arrest as a condition of probation because it essentially constitutes jail time. The 4-3 opinion written by Judge Irma S. Raker states that courts in only five counties have such power by law.

"We recognize that home detention might be beneficial in many cases," the opinion states, "nevertheless, we believe that this policy and the limits which should be placed upon it are matters properly for the legislature to consider."

The decision was made in the case of Frederick A. Bailey, who was convicted in Anne Arundel County of battery, theft, reckless endangerment and fleeing police. He was given an 18-month jail term and ordered to spend 24 months under house arrest after his release. The case was sent back to the trial court for resentencing.

Yesterday, Hispanic activists viewed the ruling as a second chance for justice. Many have staged protests outside the courthouse criticizing the plea agreement. Two of the victims say they were never consulted by Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Ritter before she agreed to the plea.

"If she [Ritter] is the lawyer, she has to communicate," said Portillo, who works in a cardboard box factory.

Solera said the Hispanic community wants the case to go to trial. He said Ritter told him that she had decided to plea-bargain the case because it boils down to the word of the immigrants against the word of the officer -- and could be difficult to win in a jury trial.

Solera rejected that argument.

"The system needs to send a message that it will not tolerate this kind of abuse," Solera said.

Ritter declined to comment.

"She's not going to discuss the case at this point," said Francine E. Stokes, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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