U.S. took carjack case only at Norris' request

O'Malley chastised DiBiagio's office later on `high-profile' cases

January 31, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

When Maryland's new U.S. attorney announced last week that his office would prosecute a Baltimore man accused of three carjacking murders in the city, Mayor Martin O'Malley suggested that federal prosecutors had hand-picked one "high-profile, slam-dunk" murder case while ignoring more routine gun crimes.

But interviews with prosecutors, as well as documents, indicate that instead of cherry-picking the case against Javas Hall, a 20-year-old accused in the shotgun killings of three unlicensed cabdrivers, the U.S. attorney's office got involved only at the request of O'Malley's top police official, Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said the lawyers in his office typically don't know what existing state court cases could be considered for federal prosecution, and rely on city police and local prosecutors to make suggestions.

"We're partners, and we don't want to be perceived as ever reaching down and taking a particular case," he said.

Norris declined to comment. O'Malley said last night that he assumed that his police chief had referred the Hall case to federal prosecutors, and he repeated that he was glad the U.S. attorney's office took it. But the mayor said that does not allay his broader concerns that federal authorities should be doing more to combat gun violence in Baltimore.

"I don't mean to hurt his feelings, but there are hundreds of people being hurt by handgun violence in Baltimore every day, and all of them are U.S. citizens," O'Malley said.

The case against Hall is significant because it is one of the first major violent crime cases filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore since DiBiagio was sworn into office late last year and since he came under public criticism from O'Malley in the past month on the issue of gun crime prosecutions.

DiBiagio, who worked for nearly nine years as a front-line federal prosecutor in Baltimore, has said that his office will play a significant role in fighting city violence. In announcing the federal indictment against Hall, who had faced state murder charges, DiBiagio said that it is exactly the kind of case where U.S. prosecutors should get involved.

Hall was indicted on federal carjacking and weapons charges that could carry the death penalty in the killings of three unlicensed cabdrivers during a two-week period in August. Investigators say the victims picked up Hall as a fare, then were forced from their cars at gunpoint and killed with a single shotgun blast to the chest.

O'Malley said last week that he welcomes federal involvement in the Hall case, but added: "Taking one high-profile, slam-dunk murder case doesn't make up for retreating on federal gun cases."

Notes and discussions

Federal prosecutors bristled at the suggestion that they were showboating. DiBiagio and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said this week that the U.S. attorney's office stepped in only at the request of Norris.

Contemporaneous notes kept by DiBiagio, and reviewed yesterday by The Sun, indicate that the commissioner first asked the federal prosecutor to look into the Hall case, along with another high-profile city carjacking case, at a meeting Oct. 24.

DiBiagio's notes from that meeting indicate that Norris asked if federal prosecutors would consider trying two violent city carjacking cases.

"Pickles Pub" was one of the cases recorded in DiBiagio's notes, a reference to the August carjacking and slaying of a young Glen Burnie pharmacist attacked after she had left the Baltimore bar; "Hack Driver," slang for the unlicensed cab drivers who were the victims in the case against Hall, was the other.

DiBiagio's office took under consideration both cases, along with other issues that the notes indicate were discussed, such as illegal ammunition sales and the possibility of creating a "Federal Day," on which all city offenders arrested on an agreed-to day could face prosecution in federal court.

Jessamy said Norris also raised the Hall case at a meeting with her and DiBiagio in mid-December.

"It just came up because we were having a discussion about how we could work together," Jessamy said, adding that she does not object to federal prosecutors taking the lead in the Hall case. "The more we can work together," she said, "the better it will be for the citizens and for the city."

Caught in the middle

Col. Robert M. Stanton, commander of the Police Department's criminal investigations division, also attended the December meeting. He said the Hall case was discussed briefly as one example of a violent city carjacking case that could be considered for federal prosecution. Stanton said he did not recall who first mentioned Hall's case at the meeting.

Through a spokesman, Norris said that Stanton's account represented the department's position.

City police are caught in the middle of the escalating disagreement between O'Malley and DiBiagio over the role that federal authorities should play in fighting city crime.

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