Man could see 2 trials with death penalty

Suspect to be tried in Jan. in string of city killings could face new indictment

November 04, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Already scheduled to stand trial in a rare federal death penalty case for his alleged role in a string of Baltimore homicides, Michael L. Taylor could find himself in an even more unusual predicament: facing a second federal death penalty trial after his first concludes.

Attorneys for the 18-year-old Baltimore man said in recent court filings that the possibility of successive death penalty trials unfairly allows the government "two bites at the apple." But prosecutors called the situation one of Taylor's own making, in a case so rife with killings that not every victim could be fully accounted for in a single trial.

"Individuals such as Mr. Taylor who commit multiple murders as adults (not even considering the multiple murders he committed as a juvenile) cannot expect to dictate whether the government chooses to charge those murders individually or together," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephanie A. Gallagher and Andrea L. Smith said in court papers.

Authorities say Taylor was part of a violent West Baltimore drug gang known as the Lexington Terrace Boys, whose members were responsible for more than 40 shootings during the past five years. His trial in January will be the first federal death penalty trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore since 1998, when a jury rejected a death sentence for convicted drug lord and killer Anthony Jones.

At a pretrial hearing yesterday, defense attorneys for Taylor and his two co-defendants challenged the validity of evidence that linked some of the shootings through an analysis of spent bullet casings found at the crime scenes. Although such testimony about bullets has become commonplace in U.S. courtrooms, defense attorneys sought to convince a judge that the standard for comparing bullet casings - in a case where no gun was ever found - is less reliable.

The three defendants were charged last fall in a federal indictment that alleged they had carried out the slayings of at least six people in connection with a crack cocaine ring. In March, prosecutors first gave notice that they planned to seek the death penalty against Taylor and co-defendant Keon D. Moses, 19, known by the nickname "Black."

Government lawyers said they would seek a death sentence against Moses in connection with a shooting on Sept. 23, 2001, that left Ronald Harris, 23, and Gregory Spain, 30, dead, and Charles Brockington, 22, wounded. Moses was charged after the incident with two counts of murder but was acquitted in April of last year in a jury trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

In the case of Taylor, known on the street as "Mike Mumbles," federal prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty for the killing in February of last year of a potential witness in Moses' double murder case - Robert "Snoop" McManus, 24, who was gunned down on Mount Street in West Baltimore.

Those killings were not the only ones attributed to the group. In court papers, government lawyers describe several other slayings that they allege were the work of the Lexington Terrace Boys. One of the first homicides federal authorities attribute to the gang was the killing in November 1999 of Ronald "Wolf" Watson, who had agreed to testify against Taylor in an earlier robbery and shooting case.

One of the last victims was Travis Burley, 20, a distant cousin of Michael Taylor. Investigators said Burley, known as "Phat Harold," was killed April 1 last year after leaving his mother's house in South Baltimore with Taylor. His body was never found, but authorities believe he might have been killed in a rowhouse on North Caroline Street, which was set on fire April 5 last year and where investigators later found a blood-soaked living room floor, bloody footprints and blood spatters on the walls, court records show.

Last month, federal prosecutors sought to add another death-penalty charge against Taylor in connection with the fatal shooting in March of last year of Vance Beasley, 32, the operator of a Baltimore hip-hop recording studio, Big League Recordings Inc., at his Cockeysville apartment.

At the same time, prosecutors also sought for the first time to seek the death penalty against a third defendant, Aaron D. Foster, 24, for the June 27, 2000, slaying of Cortez Lamont Bailey, known on the street as "Man Man."

But the move raised a thorny timing problem, leaving defense attorneys with as little as 12 weeks to build a case around the new allegations before the January trial date. Defense attorney William B. Purpura, who represents Foster, complained in court papers about the compressed schedule, saying it was not enough time to prepare a complete defense against a possible death sentence.

"The government's tardiness has interfered with defense preparations for a death penalty trial," Purpura said. "There are any number of tasks that must be accomplished once it is clear that the legal battle involves life and death."

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