Abeokuto will first face U.S. charges

Suspect in girl's death accused of trying to extort $5,000 in ransom

January 15, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore man accused of killing his girlfriend's 8-year-old daughter made his first appearance yesterday in a Maryland courtroom as federal prosecutors said they would try him on extortion charges before he faces a state murder charge that could bring the death penalty.

The decision to keep Jamal Kenneth Abeokuto in federal custody surprised some authorities, including the state's attorney in Harford County, where Marciana Ringo's beaten body was discovered.

"I don't know why they are going forward with federal charges when there is a state capital murder case," Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said, noting concerns about whether state prosecutors and defense attorneys will have full access to Abeokuto.

"If he gets a federal sentence -- and who knows where the U.S. marshal or Bureau of Prisons is going to ship him -- how easy will it be to get him back?" Cassilly said.

Federal prosecutors brought extortion charges against Abeokuto when he was a fugitive suspect in Marciana's disappearance and killing. It was generally assumed, however, that federal authorities who arrested Abeokuto in Alabama late last month would turn him over to face the murder case in Harford County.

But Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said his prosecutors would try their case as a way to possibly secure a 20-year federal sentence in addition to whatever punishment Abeokuto could face in the state system if convicted. DiBiagio said he has assured Cassilly that federal authorities would fully accommodate state prosecutors.

"The conviction [in state court], like all convictions, is not a certainty; the death penalty is not a certainty," DiBiagio said yesterday. "And carrying out the death penalty in Maryland is not a certainty."

In an earlier interview, DiBiagio dismissed the idea that authorities had secured the federal charges only as a way to arrest Abeokuto after he was believed to have crossed the state line: "We're not just some sort of bounty hunters," he said.

A federal indictment charged Abeokuto, 23, of the 5200 block of W. North Ave., with two counts of mailing threatening communications. Authorities allege that Abeokuto mailed a ransom note Dec. 3, the day that Marciana disappeared, threatening to kill the girl if he didn't receive $5,000.

The girl's mother, Milagro White, received the ransom note two days after Marciana disappeared. Two days later, city police detectives charged Abeokuto with illegally possessing a handgun they found in his car.

But the city police crime lab did not finish processing the ransom note -- which revealed one of Abeokuto's fingerprints on the letter, according to court records -- until after Abeokuto had posted bail on the gun charge and fled.

Authorities caught up with Abeokuto more than two weeks later at a Birmingham, Ala., motel. He was transported to Maryland Monday, and pleaded not guilty to the federal charges during a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth P. Gesner.

White, who was in the courtroom with other family members, bit her lower lip and wiped away tears as she watched the proceedings. The family left U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday without commenting on the case.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown said people should withhold judgment of Abeokuto.

"He's not a monster, he doesn't have horns in his head, and he's not the type of person who would harm a young child," Brown said.

U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis set a July 14 trial date for Abeokuto on the federal charge, and Brown said that he "fully intended" to go to trial. Brown said he welcomed the federal case, even though it means his client faces two trials.

"I'm glad that the federal government was not just serving as an agent of the state," Brown said. "The good thing from our perspective is it will give us a preview of the case."

DiBiagio said the federal case will not tip the hand of state prosecutors, noting that most relevant details of the case have been reported in the news media. In explaining his decision to go forward with the federal case, DiBiagio said officials with the Baltimore Police Department had directly requested that his office bring the charges -- a request he wanted to honor.

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