The defense attorney for an aspiring Baltimore rap artist standing trial on federal drug conspiracy charges looked at the jury box during opening statements yesterday and said he had one concern: The panel might be too white to understand his client's story.
Attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell said he was confident that the mostly Caucasian jury would not weigh race in reaching a verdict in the case against local rapper Deon Lionnel Smith and his one-time associate, Walter Oriley Poindexter. But, Ravenell said, "You may have to struggle to understand where they were coming from."
"I suspect that what a lot of you know about rap music is what you hear on the radio or see on the TV, and a lot of that's not good," Ravenell told jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "But Mr. Smith isn't on trial for being part of the rap industry."
Federal authorities charged Smith, 32, and Poindexter, 28, this year with heroin distribution and conspiracy. They are accused of running a violent drug ring, in part from the recording studio they operated on West 36th Street in Hampden under the name Stash House Records.
The label, with Smith recording under the stage name Papi Jenkinz, had some small successes with individual songs and had pinned its hopes on the release of a compilation compact disc, Gumbo. But the business closed in the spring after Smith's arrest.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan P. Luna described Smith as a supplier for a highly organized drug ring that was run by Poindexter and sold heroin in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods of Pimlico and Park Heights under the street name "9-1-1."
A former associate of Poindexter and Smith, Warren Grace, testified yesterday that he sold drugs for the group, and said the drug's street name had a practical application:
"Once [users] hit it, they were going to need 9-1-1 - they were going to have to call an ambulance," said Grace, who is expected to be a central witness in the government's case.
After investigators found drugs and two handguns in Grace's Baltimore home in April last year, he agreed to cooperate with Baltimore police and the FBI. Wearing a body wire, he secretly recorded several conversations later that year with Smith and Poindexter. Luna said the jury would hear those recordings during the trial.
Attorneys for Smith and Poindexter sought in their opening statements to portray Grace as a lying ex-convict and untrustworthy witness. Ravenell said that as Smith tried to build a legitimate career in the music business, his fatal mistake was that he failed to cut his ties with criminal associates from his past - most notably, Grace.
"Mr. Smith was a man who cared about bringing others along," Ravenell said, explaining to jurors Smith's vision of a thriving, upstart rap business based in the heart of Baltimore. "This was a working business - people trying to make it."