Drug case dismissed after prosecutor fails to meet deadline for evidence

Police did weeks of surveillance on juvenile and adult suspects


News from around the Baltimore region

August 27, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy and Gus G. Sentementes | Sumathi Reddy and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

A city prosecutor yesterday was forced to throw out drug-dealing conspiracy and gun charges against three alleged juvenile members of a gang known as "Cutthroat," after failing to meet a deadline to hand over a surveillance videotape to defense attorneys.

The dismissal of the case was a blow to authorities. Police had conducted about three weeks of covert surveillance of the teenage boys and their adult leaders at a Northwest Baltimore public housing complex in June. Police arrested most of the juveniles and adults June 30.

The arrests came after one of the boys was accused of fatally shooting a 23-year-old man June 25 at the Oswego Mall apartments. The boy, who was 13 at the time but has since turned 14, faces murder charges in juvenile court in the death of Jerrod Hamlett.

He is awaiting a Sept. 7 hearing on whether his case will be transferred to adult court.

The Sun has not identified any of the boys because they were charged as juveniles.

The trial for the three 15-year-old boys facing handgun and drug-trafficking charges was supposed to begin yesterday at the Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street. But their defense attorneys raised objections to the late notice from Assistant State's Attorney Janet S. Hankin that a surveillance videotape existed.

Hankin was supposed to turn over all evidence to defense attorneys by Aug. 15. But she did not view the surveillance video until after the deadline, though she knew of its existence before Aug. 5. She told Juvenile Master Claudette Brown that she did not intend to use it in the trial because the police had other evidence.

The three teenagers, admonished several times by their lawyers and guardians for fidgeting and talking with each other, strode out of the court yesterday beaming.

The boys and their relatives declined to comment.

Jay M. Ortis, an attorney for one of the juveniles, said the case was dismissed because of a weak investigation.

"This was a high-publicity case, and the police rushed in to take some action," said Ortis. "They put together a shoddy investigation. The truth came out in court. The little evidence the state had they didn't want to turn over."

Hankin, the prosecutor, praised the work of police. "These detectives put on a really good investigation that was all dismissed because of something that may have been exculpatory," Hankin said after the hearing, referring to evidence that defense lawyers should be allowed to examine.

One of the investigators on the case, Detective Sgt. Melvin Russell, said police are "reassessing" whether the investigation into the alleged drug ring will continue.

Russell said surveillance that was not videotaped showed the juveniles conducting more than 20 drug transactions some days. They acted as lookouts, "hitters" - selling vials of cocaine for $10 each - and as money collectors.

Hankin said building cases against juveniles can be especially difficult because of the time constraints. Cases go to trial after 30 days.

According to internal police reports obtained by The Sun, the juveniles were being directed by at least two adults.

After obtaining a search and seizure warrant, police raided several houses in and around the Oswego Mall apartments, which authorities said were being used in the alleged gang's drug trafficking activities. Police said they seized more than 50 vials of cocaine and a .38-caliber handgun from one house.

They charged the three 15-year-old boys and three adults, including Joseph O. Smith, 23, of the 4000 block of Oswego Court, who is accused of being the group's No. 2 man.

The other two adults charged were Jeanette Chase, 19, of the 3500 block of Spelding Road and Tavries Allen, 27, of the 4000 block of Oswego Court.

Smith, Chase and Allen were arraigned yesterday in city Circuit Court on multiple counts of drug charges, according to a state's attorney's office spokesman. Their trial date is scheduled for Nov. 1.

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