DiBiagio agrees to delay case

U.S. attorney postpones federal extortion trial in slaying of Marciana Ringo

Defers to Md. death penalty case

Harford prosecutor, kin of victim sought decision

April 18, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Under pressure from Harford County's top prosecutor and the family of a slain 8-year-old girl, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said yesterday that his office would postpone its extortion case against murder suspect Jamal Abeokuto until after his death penalty trial in state court.

DiBiagio's decision came after a meeting yesterday with relatives of Marciana Ringo, the Baltimore girl whose beaten body was discovered in Harford County, and after increasingly vocal criticism of the federal prosecutor by State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

In a one-sentence statement, DiBiagio said that "in order to maintain the focus on the successful prosecution of Jamal Abeokuto, [he would] seek a continuance of the federal prosecution until the state trial is concluded."

DiBiagio was not available for further comment. Cassilly, who did not know about the decision until contacted by The Sun, was cautiously optimistic that it would settle his concerns about the federal prosecution hampering the state murder case. He noted, however, that issues such as whether Abeokuto would remain in federal custody for now are unresolved.

"This may take care of a big piece of the issue," Cassilly said about DiBiagio's decision. "This may solve everyone's problem, and allow everyone to save face."

In interviews and in a strongly worded letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Cassilly had criticized DiBiagio's effort to pursue federal extortion charges against Abeokuto instead of first allowing authorities in Harford County to try their death penalty case against the 23-year-old Baltimore man.

Initiating a rare public fight with the state's top federal prosecutor, Cassilly had asked Ashcroft to order DiBiagio to step aside. In a Jan. 31 letter, Cassilly wrote: "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?"

Federal prosecutors brought extortion charges against Abeokuto when he was a fugitive suspect in the disappearance and killing of Marciana, the daughter of his then-girlfriend. Abeokuto was charged with two counts of mailing threatening communications -- charges that could carry a 20-year federal prison term -- after authorities said he mailed a ransom note the day that Marciana disappeared, threatening to kill the girl if he didn't receive $5,000.

After Marciana's body was found in Harford County, her throat slit and skull fractured, and after Abeokuto was arrested in Alabama and charged in her disappearance and death, it appeared likely that federal authorities would turn him over to face the state murder trial.

But DiBiagio said his prosecutors would try their case first, saying in a January interview that a state court conviction, "like all convictions, is not a certainty; the death penalty is not a certainty -- and carrying out the death penalty in Maryland is not a certainty."

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

The decision to keep Abeokuto in federal custody surprised Cassilly and Marciana's family members, who said they raised the issue for the first time with DiBiagio at yesterday's meeting, arranged after they called his office this week.

Marciana's great-grandfather, Robert Sanchez Vaddy, described the meeting as cordial and efficient. After he and Marciana's mother and father said they wanted to see the state prosecution proceed first, DiBiagio quickly agreed to their request, Vaddy said.

"They listened carefully, and we said that to us, the murder charge is more important than the extortion charge," Vaddy said. "And [DiBiagio] said, `If that's the way you feel about it, then I'll step aside and let them go first.'"

The meeting between the victim's family and the federal prosecutor came after The Sun reported this week about Cassilly's efforts to get Justice Department officials to intervene in the dispute. After more than two months with no response from Washington, Cassilly received a faxed letter from the Justice Department this week urging that the two prosecutors try to forge an "agreeable plan."

As Marciana's family met for the first time with DiBiagio yesterday, Cassilly said he also had received phone calls from the Justice Department as officials there appeared to be trying to broker a resolution. Cassilly said Justice officials were trying to set up a meeting for next week when he learned about DiBiagio's decision.

"That's a step in the right direction," Cassilly said. "It doesn't resolve all of the issues, but it does resolve some of them."

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