A 21-year-old man pleaded not guilty yesterday to federal charges of setting a fatal fire last year that killed seven members of an East Baltimore family and touched off widespread outrage against the city's culture of drugs and violence.
Darrell L. Brooks, wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt and blue jeans, quietly entered his plea in federal court before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.
Brooks is charged in a 10-count indictment with setting a fire Oct. 16 at the rented rowhouse in the 1400 block of E. Preston St. where Carnell and Angela Dawson lived with their five children. Brooks, a neighbor of the Dawsons, is also charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail into the house Oct. 3. That fire caused no injuries.
Garbis set a Sept. 22 trial date yesterday, and much of the hearing centered on whether defense lawyers will have enough time to prepare their case.
James Wyda, Brooks' lawyer and the federal public defender in Baltimore, said he would need more than nine months to delve through records and witness statements generated by dozens of city and federal investigators.
"The investigation is of some complexity," Wyda said.
Wyda said that he would also need more time to research and analyze Brooks' lengthy history of learning disabilities and hospitalizations for mental illness.
Before trial, Wyda will get a chance to present Brooks' troubled past and other mitigating factors to officials with the U.S. Justice Department, who will decide whether to seek capital punishment.
Wyda suggested that he would seek to move the case out of Baltimore because he was "certainly concerned about the effect of publicity" on potential jurors.
Angela Dawson and the five children, ages 9 to 14, were found dead in the house; Carnell Dawson leapt from a second-story window and died a week later.