Phone calls by defendant are open to explication

Slang terms' meaning debated in drug trial

May 24, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In the Baltimore Circuit courtroom of Judge John N. Prevas this week, two Spanish interpreters are translating the proceedings for a Dominican defendant.

But a touchier problem is how to interpret for the jury the words of his Baltimorean co-defendant.

Prosecutors brought drug charges against Dante Linton based on hundreds of calls police say they secretly recorded last fall from his cell phone. The trouble is, in many of the conversations, Linton and his friends talk like stockbrokers chatting about the day's Dow results -- with a vocabulary that confounds outsiders.

Defense attorneys are trying to use this street idiom to their advantage, suggesting the prosecution's interpretation of Linton's words misrepresents ordinary African-American expressions. It is a strategy that evokes strained race relations between law enforcement and the people they police.

Consider this exchange between Linton and another man:

"Damn, so what's you got right now? You ain't got half by now?" Linton asks Tavon Roberts, who pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy before the trial.

"Hell, no, it's been hot, man, they been on the block walkin' around and parked on the block," Roberts replies. "I ain't even been buying sodas or nothin'."

On the witness stand, Baltimore Detective David Cheuvront gave the following interpretation: Linton asks Roberts for money, and Roberts explains that he hasn't been able to sell drugs because of the heavy police presence on the street.

Defense attorneys suggested Roberts could have been describing the weather.

Subtext develops

These courtroom exchanges have a clear subtext: The detective, who is white, doesn't understand the language and culture of the African-Americans on whom he is eavesdropping.

Prosecutors are trying Linton, 30, as a "drug kingpin" who they say organized and controlled a ring of dealers who bought cocaine powder from sources in New York and then converted it into crack cocaine to sell on the street in Baltimore and Baltimore County. A kingpin conviction carries a minimum prison sentence of 20 years without parole.

The evidence against him, part of a narcotics wiretapping initiative by city law enforcement that has led to 85 indictments, appears difficult to debunk. Defending Linton against his words (which sound gentle on the phone, even when he's cursing) "is a whole different animal," said Linwood Hedgepeth, a public defender representing him.

For days, jurors have put on headphones and heard Linton allegedly making drug deals with his friends, girlfriends and associates. They've heard him planning urgent trips to New York and trying to collect money. They've heard him discuss the possibility that detectives have tapped his black Nokia cell phone. ("I mean, that's just a general rule, don't talk a lot on the phone," he tells an unidentified woman.)

Aware that police can record their conversations, drug dealers talk in code on the phone, which means words such as "cocaine," "buy" "gun" and "dollars" don't come up.

Take, for instance, a conversation detectives say involves a dealer, Arturo Dickens (who also pleaded guilty to conspiracy), asking Linton to mix his crack a different way:

Linton: "Yo."

Dickens: "Oh yeah, I was gonna ask you, um, can you make that a little different?"

Linton: "Oh, they ain't like that last one?"

Dickens: "Yeah, they, um, got a couple of complaints, ah."

Linton: "All right, ah, I got you."

Dickens: "All right."

Translations challenged

Because Linton's language must be interpreted for the jury by the prosecution witnesses, the defense has little choice but to challenge those translations. Did the detective know, for instance, that "Shorty" -- identified by police as a specific person -- is a common nickname in the African-American community? Hedgepeth asked.

Outside the courtroom, Hedgepeth said the danger of misinterpretation was real. "In the drug culture, unfortunately, there are a lot of African-American people. So when you're dealing with expressions like `hit me up' or `holler at me,' there's a tendency to transpose the drug culture onto that," he said.

But, by arguing about these expressions, the defense attorneys also are hinting that racism could be influencing the prosecution's case. Cheuvront is white. So is the prosecutor, James Wallner. So is Judge Prevas. Linton is African-American, his co-defendant, Yonni Ventura, 33, is Hispanic, and their three attorneys are African-American. Of the 12 jurors and six alternates, three are white.

Paul D. Butler, a professor at George Washington University Law School, says the tactic makes sense in light of national trends. "There's considerable evidence that drug laws are selectively enforced against African-Americans, and sometimes African-American jurors react to that selective enforcement by being more sympathetic to the defendant," he said.

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