Harford County's top prosecutor says Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio is hurting a high-profile state murder case against a Baltimore man accused of killing an 8-year-old girl, and he has asked the Justice Department to order DiBiagio to step aside.
In a strongly worded letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly criticized DiBiagio's decision to pursue federal extortion charges against Jamal Abeokuto instead of turning him over to authorities in Harford County, where Marciana Ringo's beaten body was found in December, and where Abeokuto could face the death penalty.
"However this turns out, Mr. DiBiagio has severely damaged federal-state law enforcement relations," Cassilly wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to Ashcroft, a copy of which he gave to The Sun yesterday.
"With all of the pressing crime problems that we face, how can the U.S. attorney waste resources on a poor imitation of a state prosecution?"
DiBiagio, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. His office provided The Sun with a copy of a Justice Department letter dated Friday in which a department official sought to assure Republican U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest -- who had raised concerns echoing Cassilly's -- that the case was being handled properly.
Federal prosecutors also suggested in court papers filed Monday in Baltimore that Cassilly could have compromised the federal and state cases against Abeokuto by asking the state police crime lab to halt DNA testing on the envelope Abeokuto is suspected of using to mail a ransom note to Marciana's family.
Cassilly said he intervened with the crime lab only in an attempt to get evidence results, which he said were delayed at least a month by federal prosecutors' requests for additional testing.
Taking on a rare public fight with the state's chief federal prosecutor, Cassilly said in an interview that the delay in obtaining crime lab evidence was one of several complications caused by the federal prosecution of Abeokuto.
Cassilly said he has asked that state prosecutors be allowed to try their case first. He said he has received no response to repeated requests that DiBiagio explain why the federal charges should take priority over a state murder case.
"If the prosecution of this case is all that justified, then why can't we get a straight answer from Justice about why they're doing this?" said Cassilly, a longtime Republican state prosecutor who was considered for the U.S. attorney's post in 2001, when DiBiagio was appointed.
"I've been doing this for 26 years, and I've never had a U.S. attorney who has been this irrational and this difficult to work with," Cassilly said.
A Justice Department official said late yesterday that a letter sent to Cassilly earlier in the day had indicated that officials in Washington hoped the two offices could reach a "mutually beneficial accommodation."
A copy of the letter was not available yesterday, but the official said it left open the option for Cassilly to appeal for further assistance from the department.
Federal prosecutors brought extortion charges against Abeokuto when he was a fugitive suspect in the killing of Marciana, who disappeared Dec. 3 and whose body was found Dec. 12. The federal charges -- two counts of mailing threatening communication -- allege that 23-year-old Abeokuto mailed a ransom note threatening to kill the girl if he didn't receive $5,000.
After Abeokuto was arrested in Alabama just before Christmas, it appeared likely that federal authorities would defer to state prosecutors in Harford County, where Marciana's body was found, her throat slit and her skull fractured, and where Abeokuto faced a murder indictment.
But DiBiagio said in January that his office would try the extortion case first as a way to possibly secure a 20-year federal sentence in addition to the punishment Abeokuto could face if convicted in state court.
In an interview then, DiBiagio noted that a conviction in state court was not guaranteed. He also dismissed the idea that authorities had brought the federal charges only as a way to arrest Abeokuto outside Maryland, saying, "We're not just some sort of bounty hunters."
In correspondence with Ashcroft and DiBiagio, and in interviews, Cassilly said the federal prosecutor's decision has hampered efforts to secure a death sentence against Abeokuto. In the Jan. 31 letter to Ashcroft, Cassilly said the decision has put his office in a no-win situation and questioned the underpinnings of the federal case.
"If the federal case is won, the publicity will immediately precede state jury selection, and every juror will be biased," Cassilly wrote. "If the federal case is lost, not only will the jurors be biased against the state but unfairly skeptical of our evidence.
"I believe there is a good chance that the federal case will be lost, since all of the investigators on the case do not believe there was any intent by Abeokuto to extort money, but only to divert suspicion from him."