A sorry shame

October 24, 2005

There's no question William Nicholson deserves to go to prison. Anybody dealing in the quantities of cocaine that he's been peddling deserves to be locked up. He was an independent wholesaler with New York connections, spreading his poison in Southwest Baltimore - the kind of dealer Baltimore-area law enforcement should be targeting. But he wasn't a kingpin running a major drug organization, and an attempt to charge him as such fell apart in a mishandled case. As reported by The Sun's Julie Bykowicz last week, those who tried to get a piece of Mr. Nicholson - including his first lawyer - messed up.

There are lessons in this case of a plea deal gone awry.

A lengthy wiretap on a drug shipment led federal drug enforcement agents and local police to arrest Mr. Nicholson on Aug. 1, 2002, and seize his Denali SUV in Dundalk. What Drug Enforcement Agency agents learned days later was that he had a hefty stash of cocaine hidden in a secret compartment of the car. Lesson No. 1: After seizing a suspected drug dealer's car, have a narcotics dog sweep the vehicle, tear it apart even.

Mr. Nicholson got a lawyer and decided to cooperate with authorities. He identified his Dominican suppliers and other dealers in Southwest Baltimore. He agreed to plead guilty, but later suspected that the entire case against him was based solely on information he had given to DEA agents and city prosecutors. Authorities are barred from using information provided by a suspect as part of plea agreement to charge him with a crime. Mr. Nicholson got a new lawyer, asked to see court documents and found that city prosecutors reported the cocaine seizure on Aug. 1, 2002, when in fact it had been made six days later when he became an informant. That dispute undermined the prosecution's case. Lesson No. 2: Accuracy is paramount, especially when a potential mandatory sentence is on the line.

Mr. Nicholson's original plea was thrown out, and prosecutors charged him under the state's drug kingpin law. He pleaded guilty last week to a lesser count of conspiracy. Lesson No. 3: Don't try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Mr. Nicholson received a 20-year sentence, all but three years suspended. The upside to this sorry tale is that his dealings with law enforcement led to federal indictments against his two New York suppliers; the greater investigation netted convictions of 23 other associates, with at least one serving a mandatory 20-year prison term. Federal and local law enforcement invested time and the public's money in trying to lock up Mr. Nicholson, but the follow-through was sorely lacking.

He'll probably be out in 18 months - and that's the real shame.

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