U.S. fails to act on Cassilly worries

Justice officials decline to resolve trial dispute

`I'll appeal higher if I have to'

Harford prosecutor wants to try Abeokuto first

April 17, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Harford County's chief prosecutor, who has complained that Maryland's U.S. attorney is hurting a high-profile state murder case, said yesterday that he is considering asking the White House to intervene because Justice Department officials failed to address his concerns.

"I'll appeal higher if I have to," State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly said. "I'll go to the White House, because this is the right thing to do."

Cassilly has criticized a decision by U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio to pursue federal extortion charges against Jamal K. Abeokuto instead of turning him over first to authorities in Harford County, where Abeokuto is accused of killing 8-year-old Marciana Ringo in December after kidnapping her from her Baltimore home.

If convicted, Abeokuto, 23, faces the death penalty in the Harford County case, and Cassilly argued in a Jan. 31 letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft that the state prosecution should take precedence over the federal charges brought when Abeokuto was a fugitive suspect in Marciana's disappearance.

Cassilly received a faxed response to his letter late Tuesday, after inquiries about the case from The Sun.

The director of the Justice Department's office for U.S. attorneys urged in his response to Cassilly that the two prosecutors try to reach an "agreeable plan" but gave no explanation for why federal authorities decided to try their case against Abeokuto before the state trial.

"A carefully considered mutual accommodation is both in the interest of justice and allows for the best presentation of your respective cases," Guy A. Lewis, director of the U.S. attorneys division, wrote.

Cassilly said he immediately faxed back a clipped response, criticizing the department's failure to help resolve the matter.

"It doesn't articulate any reasons, and that's because there are no good reasons," Cassilly said. "All I asked for was, `Just give us a reason for why you're screwing this up.' ... And they can't respond to that."

DiBiagio declined this week to comment on the case. In an interview this year, he said prosecutors in his office would try their case to possibly secure a 20-year federal sentence in addition to punishment Abeokuto could face in the state system.

In other instances, DiBiagio has said decisions about whether to try suspects in state or federal court should be based on where the defendant potentially faced the longer sentence.

In the federal case, Abeokuto was charged with two counts of mailing threatening communications after authorities said he mailed a ransom note the day that Marciana disappeared, demanding $5,000.

The girl's mother, who was dating Abeokuto at the time, received the ransom note two days after Marciana disappeared. Two days after that, city police detectives charged Abeokuto with illegally possessing a handgun they had discovered during a search of his car.

But the city police crime lab did not finish testing the ransom note -- which authorities said revealed one of Abeokuto's fingerprints on the letter -- until after Abeokuto had posted bail on the gun charge and fled. It was at that point that DiBiagio's office stepped in and filed the extortion charges.

Abeokuto will stand trial in federal court in July. The Harford County murder trial is scheduled for October.

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