Generous plea deal follows `cover-up'

Prosecutors deny any misconduct in drug dealer's case


For years, William Nicholson supplied cocaine to three major drug dealers in Southeast Baltimore, and when he was arrested, the Highlandtown native had more than a pound of the drug hidden in his Yukon Denali.

Last week, Nicholson entered a guilty plea that resulted in a prison term of no more than three years, a fraction of the 40 years he could have received if convicted of two charges of violating the drug kingpin statute.

It appeared to be an unexpectedly generous plea deal. But Nicholson's short sentence brings to an end a case that, according to judges and court documents, involved either carelessness or wrongdoing on the part of prosecutors.

"They got away with lying," said Nicholson, who is free until his sentencing hearing. "And you know what their excuse is? I'm a criminal."

What happened to Nicholson was "a cover-up," said Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas.

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn called the behavior of a prosecutor "dubious and slick."

In June 2003, Glynn vacated Nicholson's original plea arrangement, which called for a 15-year prison term, because he suspected that prosecutors had lied in court documents about the date that drugs were found in an effort to make them admissible in court.

Authorities eventually admitted in court that they had found Nicholson's drugs only because of information he gave during an off-the-record conversation called a proffer, but court documents drawn up by prosecutors imply that the drugs had been seized days earlier.

"You know, I think it was done because it made people uncomfortable, and to try to deal with their discomfort they sort of brushed over it lightly and hoped it would never come up again," Glynn said in the hearing.

Prosecutors strongly disputed any wrongdoing. "There were allegations, but nothing was ever proved in court," said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office.

Nancy Olin, the original lead prosecutor in the case, declined to comment. Michael Studdard, the prosecutor who wrote what two judges said were misleading court documents, said that "there was no intentional cover-up."

"Slick and dubious is not my style," he said.

In a court hearing, Studdard blamed his error on trying to condense information into "the shortest amount of paperwork." Glynn dismissed that as "not much of an excuse."

Glynn denied a defense motion for sanctions for prosecutorial misconduct. The judge later said he thought throwing out the first plea deal was sanction enough.

One round of Nicholson's complaints to the Attorney Grievance Commission was dismissed, but he said he plans to file again.

An admitted high-volume drug distributor, Nicholson, 28, said he knows he is not a sympathetic figure. But he said he trusted authorities when they promised not to use against him in court the information he had given during the proffer.

When prosecutors "didn't hold up their end of the bargain," Nicholson said, "they proved they are no better than the people they're prosecuting."

Nicholson's attorney backs him up, saying the most troublesome issue is not the misdeeds of his client, but rather the integrity of the criminal justice system.

"This is unheard-of behavior by prosecutors," said defense attorney Lawrence B. Rosenberg. "They just didn't care. To them, the ends justified the means. If they are this unethical, what's to stop them from cheating in every way possible?"

The Nicholson case emerged from a multiline telephone and pager wiretap conducted for months in 2002 by city, county and federal authorities.

Nicholson was arrested Aug. 1, 2002, in his Denali, a high-end sport utility vehicle. Nicholson said he was questioned by investigators who told him that they knew he was dealing drugs. They pressed him to reveal his suppliers. He insisted on speaking with a lawyer, and they let him leave.

Nicholson said his release that day came as a surprise, given that he had 605 grams of powder cocaine hidden in a rear compartment of his Denali, which had been seized.

"They must not have found the drugs," he recalled thinking. He hired lawyer William B. Purpura and, on Aug. 7, 2002, returned to the authorities and agreed to tell them everything.

Proffers are used as a way for police and prosecutors to learn what a potential informant knows before agreeing to bargain with him. Prosecutors are forbidden from using information from a proffer against the informant in court unless the informant doesn't uphold the terms of the deal.

Nicholson was cooperative. He identified his suppliers, two Dominicans based in New York - both of whom were later indicted federally - and dozens of lower-level members of a drug organization that sold mainly in Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods. He also told investigators about the cocaine in the Denali.

On Oct. 31, 2002, Nicholson pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The amount of cocaine meant a sentence of 15 years in prison, the first five without the chance for parole.

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