Killers' defense points to troubled childhood

They argue against death for two members of gang

April 07, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

As federal prosecutors asked a jury yesterday to recommend death sentences for two members of a murderous West Baltimore drug ring, defense lawyers put on trial the troubled Lexington Terrace housing project where the men grew up and for which they named their gang.

The violence-riddled high-rises, demolished in 1996, were a "living hell" where children feared gunfire as they walked home from school and faced little hope of finding a legitimate way out of poverty, defense attorney Carroll McCabe said in opening statements in the penalty phase of the federal case against Keon D. Moses and Michael L. Taylor.

"We are going to show you a place where life was much harder than any of us can imagine," McCabe said as she asked jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to show mercy and compassion - "lessons that Keon Moses never learned in his world, ... a brutal world, where it was either kill or be killed."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith told jurors that they would hear evidence of the bleak childhood that came with growing up in Lexington Terrace. But, Smith said, "at some point, where does personal responsibility come into play?"

Moses, 21, also known as "Black," and Taylor, 20, nicknamed "Mike Mumbles," were convicted last week on federal drug conspiracy and weapons violations in connection with three homicides - a double slaying in a basement rowhouse on Sept. 23, 2001, and the subsequent shooting death of a potential witness.

A jury must decide whether the two men should receive a sentence of death or life in prison without parole. The penalty phase, expected to last through this month, marks the first time U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore have asked a jury for a death sentence since 1998, when jurors instead recommended a life sentence for convicted drug lord Anthony Jones.

In the current case, authorities say Taylor and Moses were part of a violent west-side gang, known as the Lexington Terrace Boys, that was responsible from 1999 to 2002 for a string of homicides and shootings as its members staked out territory in the city's crack cocaine trade.

A third defendant, Aaron D. Foster, 24, also was convicted last week. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and will be sentenced later by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, who is presiding over the case.

During two months of trial testimony, prosecutors linked the gang to six homicides. Yesterday, Smith said the government would present evidence of additional shootings and killings for the jury to consider as "aggravating factors" in weighing whether Moses and Taylor should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without parole.

Smith said that in May 1999, Moses, then 16, shot and wounded a man named Byron "Mandingo" Parker and, a month later, killed Kevin "Roll" James - both after arguments over drugs and money.

The prosecutor also said Taylor, in the week before his 18th birthday, shot and killed two associates from the neighborhood in December 2001. Kiari "Lotus" Cromwell and Derek Hamlin each were shot in the head as they sat at a kitchen table in Cromwell's apartment.

Robert Waldman, a defense attorney for Taylor, told jurors that Taylor was "not a sadist or a serial killer," but a troubled youth who was victimized by his childhood in Lexington Terrace and stints in the state's violent juvenile detention facilities - including the now-closed juvenile boot camp program.

"The crimes are monstrous, but is he?" Waldman said. "And I am going to tell you now, he is not." He called Taylor a "kid from the ghetto," who came of age with a stunted, adolescent sense of reasoning and "Lexington Terrace sense of morality."

To build the case that Taylor and Moses were products of an unforgiving landscape, defense attorneys are expected to present as witnesses social workers and researchers. They also plan to call former Baltimore Detective Edward Burns, who helped put away some of West Baltimore's most notorious drug dealers and later drew upon his work in the nonfiction book The Corner and the cable television drama The Wire.

Smith, the prosecutor, told the jury that its job would be difficult. But she said the court system had afforded Taylor and Moses safeguards and protections that they never allowed their victims, saying the two men took it upon themselves to be "judge, jury and executioner."

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