Noakes gets 10 years in drug case

Baltimore man acquitted in 1999, 2001 of 2 killings

March 13, 2003|By Allison Klein and Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Allison Klein and Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Courtney Noakes, a man whom prosecutors tried to send to prison on three separate murder charges in as many years, was sentenced to 10 years without parole yesterday for selling heroin on a West Baltimore street.

"I'm sure there are people who are pretty glad he's going to prison," said city police Detective Kelly N. Harrison, the lead investigator in Noakes' drug case.

"Most people in their lifetime don't get charged with three murders," Harrison said.

Noakes, 22, who stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 300 pounds, became an embarrassment to police and prosecutors, as their previous inability to convict him highlighted shortfalls in the justice system. He was a subject of "Justice Undone," a series of articles in The Sun last year detailing the shortfalls.

Yesterday, he was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin and conspiracy to distribute heroin. City Circuit Judge David Ross sentenced him to two 10-year terms, to be served at the same time. Prosecutors asked for 30 years.

Noakes, who was free on $10,000 bail during the trial, was led from the courtroom in handcuffs.

Noakes' history became an issue in the courtroom when Assistant Public Defender Angela Shelton asked for a mistrial because of an article in yesterday's Sun that detailed Noakes' past.

The motion for a mistrial was denied after all jurors said they had not read the article. Though a matter of public record, a defendant's record is not usually permitted to be used against him or her in a trial.

Noakes' record includes acquittals of first-degree murder in 1999 and 2001. Prosecutors were forced to drop a third murder charge against him in 2001 because of problems with the evidence.

He was convicted in 2000 for selling cocaine and, as a juvenile, he twice received probation for drug possession.

In yesterday's case, prosecutor Nancy Olin convinced a jury that Noakes was caught in January last year dealing powder heroin in the 2300 block of Whittier Ave., a block from his house.

"Justice was done," she said.

Harrison, the detective, testified that he saw Noakes accepting money from people on the street. Noakes' co-defendant, Thurron Johnson, then went across the street to retrieve drugs from a "stash" under a cinderblock and gave them to the "customers," he said.

Harrison said that he arrested the two and seized six bags of heroin from under the cinderblock.

Johnson, 29, opted to have his case decided by the judge, instead of the jury. Ross convicted him of the same charges as Noakes. Under a prearranged plea agreement, Johnson was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Jurors said after the trial that they reached a decision to convict Noakes quickly.

"There was no question," said Jane Scanlan, 69, a nurse who served on yesterday's jury.

Scanlan said jurors took a swift poll and unanimously agreed on his guilt. Then they deliberated the merits of the case for about 45 minutes.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy expressed satisfaction with yesterday's verdict.

"Our priority is to successfully prosecute criminals, getting the most serious, dangerous and violent offenders removed from our communities for as long as possible," Jessamy said. "That is what has been accomplished in this case."

News of Noakes' conviction brought comfort to Sherry Mitchell, who watched a jury acquit him of charges of killing her brother, Steven Gabriel.

"This is good news," Mitchell said yesterday in a telephone interview. "At least he'll spend some time in prison."

Mitchell was not there when Noakes' lawyer asked for a mistrial because of yesterday's article in The Sun.

Ross denied the motion after polling jurors and asking them if they had read the article. All said they had not.

Ross chastised The Sun in open court for printing the article.

"If the goal of the newspaper is to see justice is done, they did a very stupid thing here," Ross said.

Legal and journalism scholars strongly disagreed with Ross, saying media outlets should be free to report on court cases.

"It's bizarre to suggest that [The Sun] not write about the case," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. "That's what newspapers do. They write stories about crime and trials."

Byron L. Warnken, a criminal law professor at the University of Baltimore who helped compile a book on jury instruction guidelines for the Maryland State Bar Association, said that according to the judge's logic, reporters "should not have covered the O.J. Simpson trial for the first 15 months."

"It's wrong to blame the media for doing the very job it has and is constitutionally protected to do," Warnken said.

The professor also said that Ross should have told jurors not to read the paper or listen to the news, as judges regularly do when they send a jury home for the night.

"If there is any fault it would be with the judge for not warning jurors to avoid news stories given the publicity of the defendant, to ensure that their verdict doesn't get overturned," Warnken said.

He said he would not be surprised if the incident led to an appeal.

An appeal could result in a new trial for Noakes.

Shelton would not comment on whether or not an appeal will be filed for his client on those grounds.

Scanlan said neither Noakes' criminal history or the news article came up during deliberations by the jury.

Ross said he did not tell jurors to avoid the news because it didn't occur to him. He presided over Noakes' murder trial in 1999.

Noakes was acquitted in that case of killing Gabriel, a night watchman, with five bullets near Reisterstown Road.

In Noakes' second murder case, the death of Danny Gales, who was shot after defending his sister from hecklers, the state dropped charges in 2001. Police missteps were revealed, including detectives' misplacing the file shortly after the killing.

In the third case, the shooting death of Branch Brown, also in 2001, jurors said they acquitted Noakes because prosecutors presented a weak case.

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