Gang members are convicted of drug conspiracy

Federal prosecutors seek death penalty for 2 men

April 02, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A jury found three West Baltimore men guilty yesterday of operating a murderous drug gang under the name of the now-razed Lexington Terrace housing project, where they grew up together. The guilty verdicts, on every count against the defendants, set the stage for a possible federal death sentence.

Jurors must decide whether Michael L. Taylor, 20, and Keon D. Moses, 21, should be sentenced to death. The penalty phase of the trial, scheduled to begin next week, will mark the first time since 1998 that U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore have asked a jury to recommend the death penalty.

The third defendant, Aaron D. Foster, 24, could receive a maximum sentence of life in prison.

In a two-month trial replete with accounts of horrific street violence and episodes of retaliation against potential witnesses, federal prosecutors presented evidence linking the gang, the Lexington Terrace Boys, to six homicides.

During the sentencing phase, jurors could hear testimony about six other killings that authorities say are linked to Taylor or Moses, who were "soldiers for the cause," of the city's brutal drug trade, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith said in closing arguments last week.

Jurors deliberated over four days before returning yesterday's guilty verdicts. Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said in a written statement that the convictions "reflect the unyielding commitment by federal prosecutors to make a serious impact on the violent crime problem in Baltimore City."

Defense attorneys said they were disappointed by the outcome and were turning their attention to trying to save their clients' lives with mitigating evidence that the men's childhoods in one of Baltimore's worst public housing complexes prepared them for little besides a life of crime.

"We will show, essentially, that Keon Moses and young men like him aren't playing on a level playing field," said Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, who represented Moses. "It doesn't excuse his conduct but, because of the disadvantages, it doesn't merit the death penalty."

At trial, defense lawyers argued that federal drug conspiracy charges did not fit what they described as a trio of crack cocaine freelancers who worked for no one and were affiliated only by their ties to the Lexington Terrace apartments.

"I think it's discouraging on the conspiracy, that it appears in this court at least, a conspiracy is whatever a jury says it is," said Foster's defense attorney, William B. Purpura.

Prosecutors said the defendants, with numerous co-conspirators, operated a crack cocaine operation from the neighborhood's narrow streets and alleys and in the nearby Edgar Allen Poe Homes from 1999 to 2002. The defendants were convicted of conspiring to distribute crack cocaine and firearms violations, as well as witness-tampering and carjacking.

The centerpiece of the government's case was a shooting in the basement of a rowhouse at 303 N. Calhoun St. on Sept. 23, 2001, that left two men dead and another wounded.

According to trial testimony and court records, a botched attempt to rob rival drug dealers ended that day with the shooting deaths of Gregory Spain, 30, and Ronald Harris, 23.

Charles Brockington III, now 23, was repeatedly shot and left for dead. When he staggered outside, he told the first people he saw: "Keon shot me."

Moses, also known as "Black," was charged with two counts of murder in state court soon after the killings, but was acquitted in April 2002 by a jury in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Yesterday, the jury convicted Moses in those shootings. It also convicted Moses and Taylor in the Feb. 22, 2002, shooting death of a potential witness in that state case, Robert "Snoop" McManus, who was shot to death as he crossed West Mount Street in a late-afternoon execution that a minister testified about watching in the rear-view mirror of his parked car.

No one could identify the shooter, but prosecutors introduced a letter that Moses had written to Taylor, who was known on the street as "Mike Mumbles." From jail, Moses raised concerns about McManus' testifying against him in state court. "His statement can hurt me, dog," Moses wrote. "I don't gotta say it, you know what I mean."

Attorneys for Taylor said he had nothing to do with McManus' death, and the jurors indicated in notes sent to U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake during deliberations that they struggled with that count.

At one point, the jury asked whether Moses could be convicted of that charge if Taylor was not. Another note asked whether circumstantial evidence was enough to convict Taylor.

"The jury's note suggests that they wrestled with the adequacy of the evidence regarding Michael Taylor's role in Mr. McManus' death," defense attorney Robert W. Biddle said. Along with his co-counsel, Robert Waldman, he declined to comment further.

At trial, prosecutors presented evidence that tied the Lexington Terrace defendants to three additional killings: a June 27, 2000, retaliation shooting of Cortez "Man Man" Bailey; the March 21, 2002, shooting death of hip-hop producer Vance Beasley at his Cockeysville apartment; and the April 1, 2002, disappearance of Travis "Phat Harold" Burley, a distant cousin to Taylor and former member of the gang.

Taylor and Foster also were convicted of witness-tampering for their efforts to intimidate another potential witness in the Spain and Harris murders.

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