Judge declares Williams mistrial

Jury deadlocked on gun charge against `Little Melvin'

September 09, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A mistrial was declared yesterday in the U.S. District Court trial on a federal handgun charge of Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, one of Baltimore's most notorious drug lords.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis issued the declaration after jurors told him they were unable to reach a verdict after 6 1/2 hours of deliberation over two days.

The case against Williams stemmed from a March incident in which he was accused of using a handgun to beat a man whose family owed money to the bail bond company which employed Williams as a manager.

Williams, a 58-year-old one-time drug kingpin, was arrested at the scene in the 1400 block of Hollins St. in southwest Baltimore.

At the time, he had been on parole for 2 1/2 years from a 24-year federal heroin trafficking sentence he received in 1984. Williams is said to have revolutionized the city's heroin trade in the 1960s and 1970s by running a sophisticated organization employing 200 street dealers.

It is illegal under federal law for anyone convicted of a major crime to possess a firearm. The charge -- felony possession of a firearm -- carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Prosecutors immediately said they would retry the case and said an Oct. 21 trial date had been set. Williams is being held until then.

"We look forward to trying it again," said Assistant U.S. Attorney James L. Webster III.

Williams' attorney, Michael E. Marr, said the charge should be dropped.

"It's obvious there was reasonable doubt in some people's minds on the jury," he said. Verdicts in criminal cases require the jurors' unanimous agreement.

After declaring a mistrial, Garbis met privately with the jurors to find out how many wanted to acquit Williams and how many wanted to convict him. Garbis later disclosed the information to the attorneys in his chambers, but his clerk and the lawyers declined to divulge the information.

Two jurors who agreed to talk anonymously after the mistrial also declined to say how the panel deadlocked. But they said the jurors were split over how much proof they needed to convict Williams.

Some jurors accepted the testimony of two government witnesses who said they saw Williams with a gun in his hand and saw a female companion take the weapon from him and place it in the Lincoln Navigator they were driving. Prosecutors also introduced into evidence a 9 mm Rugar that police recovered from beneath the vehicle's front seat.

But some members of the panel "wouldn't have accepted anything less than a photograph of [Williams] with a gun in his hand," one juror said.

Williams' defense included testimonials from state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of West Baltimore and such prominent clergy as the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Willie Ray, known for his anti-violence rallies. All testified that Williams had changed completely from the days when he dominated the city's drug trade.

"I would give my right arm for Melvin Williams because of my belief in his honesty, my belief in the transformation in his life," said Reid, whose West Baltimore church has 14,000 members.

Williams took the stand in his own defense during the five-day trial, testifying that he did not beat Tracy Thomas, whose family owed Scrap Bailbonds $500, and in fact had never touched a gun.

But under cross-examination by Webster, Williams acknowledged that he had been convicted in state court in the 1960s of possession of a deadly weapon. Williams also was convicted in 1974 on federal drug charges.

In his closing arguments Tuesday, Webster called Williams "one of the worst criminals in the history of the city" and said, "He lied on the stand. He's lied all his life."

Webster also dismissed the testimony of Mitchell, Reid and Ray, saying their appearance was a "desperate attempt" by the defense to distract the jury's attention and adding, "He lied to them, he deceived them, he conned them, he played them."

Marr countered that no blood or fingerprints were found on the gun.

"[Prosecutors] are trying to try this case on everybody's past here," he said. "That's not what the law is about."

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