Death penalty rejected in drug gang murders

Baltimore jury urges life for pair in violent saga

April 29, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A federal jury rejected the death penalty and recommended life sentences yesterday for two West Baltimore men who carried out a string of brutal homicides - including one witness killing - as they staked out territory in the city's drug trade under the name of the now-razed public housing complex where they grew up together.

The government's case against Michael L. Taylor, 20, and Keon D. Moses, 21, marked the first time since 1998 that U.S. prosecutors in Baltimore had sought a federal death sentence. In closing arguments, one prosecutor said life in prison would be "too good" for them.

Jurors deliberated less than five hours before announcing their verdict. The panel, which served anonymously and under tight guard during the nearly four-month trial, was then escorted from the courthouse.

"We commend the jury for recognizing that mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice," Annapolis attorney Robert Waldman, who represented Taylor, said outside the courtroom. "The speed and unanimity of their decision speaks volumes."

Authorities said Taylor and Moses were part of a loose-knit and violent gang known as the Lexington Terrace Boys for the public housing complex where members grew up. The gang is believed to be responsible for as many as a dozen killings.

Taylor and Moses were convicted this month on federal drug conspiracy charges and firearms violations in connection with a double homicide - which Moses had been acquitted of two years ago in the city court system - and the slaying of another man, Robert "Snoop" McManus, to block his testimony in the case.

"They killed a witness - this cannot stand," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith told jurors in closing arguments early yesterday. "It's an attack to our system of justice."

During the trial, Smith and fellow prosecutor Stephanie Gallagher presented evidence connecting the Lexington Terrace Boys to nine killings. Taylor had a direct role in seven of them over an eight-month stretch, authorities said.

Court records connect the gang to three other slayings that were not presented at trial.

Attorneys for Taylor and Moses tried to persuade jurors to spare their clients' lives by presenting evidence of the hardscrabble existence both had faced growing up in the violence-plagued high rises of the Lexington Terrace housing complex.

"It is apparent from the jury returning a verdict in a little over four hours that the jury was moved by the facts and the circumstances of both their lives," said Baltimore attorney Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, who, along with Annapolis attorney Carroll McCabe, represented Moses.

Taylor could face a second death penalty trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in other killings attributed to the Lexington Terrace Boys.

Across the country, juries in recent years have shown an increasing resistance to imposing death sentences. The Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project reported in August that 20 of the 21 most recent federal death penalty cases had resulted in life sentences.

Since 2000, federal juries had voted for life sentences in 38 of 43 capital cases, according to the group's report.

In the case of Taylor and Moses, jurors for the past month heard mitigating evidence that spotlighted the cycle of poverty, neglect, violence and addiction that over the last four decades eroded Baltimore's inner city and has persisted even after Lexington Terrace and other public housing high-rises were demolished in the late 1990s.

Taylor, nicknamed "Mike Mumbles," and Moses, known on the street as "Black," were born to teen-age mothers who soon became heavy drug abusers and to biological fathers who barely acknowledged them. They struggled in school, worked as "squeegee kids" washing car windows along Martin Luther King Boulevard for pocket change and were indoctrinated to violence at a young age.

Just before Moses' 4th birthday, the man who had raised him as a father figure was gunned down in the lobby of one of the Lexington Terrace high-rises - a victim, his family believed, of the drug organization that ruled the high-rises in the mid-1980s under drug lord Warren Boardley.

"We spread Baltimore's tragic problems across the courtroom, and a jury decided an execution was not the way to address them," said Baltimore attorney Robert W. Biddle, who represented Taylor.

Prosecutors countered that the men faced the same tough conditions as hundreds of other children who grew up in the city's housing projects and who never turned to drug dealing or to murder.

"They have a victim mindset, and it's being fed by this process," Smith said.

She told jurors that life in prison would allow Taylor and Moses the opportunity to work, visit with friends and relatives, and to experience other facets of daily life such as watching television or visiting the prison library that their victims never could.

"I'm not saying it's great; I'm not saying I would want it," Smith said of prison life. "But it's too good for Michael and Keon."

Of the 29 men now on federal death row, only one is from Maryland. Dustin John Higgs of Laurel was convicted in federal court in Greenbelt in 2000 of ordering the kidnapping and murder of three women in 1996.

Federal prosecutors in Baltimore had last asked a jury to recommend a death sentence in 1998, for convicted East Baltimore drug lord Anthony Jones. The jury recommended a life sentence.

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