3 convicted in firebombing case

Each found guilty of six federal charges for Jan. 15 attack in North Baltimore


Adding a new page to the city's troubled history of witness intimidation, a federal jury convicted three men yesterday of trying to kill a North Baltimore activist because she dared to report their drug dealing to police.

The guilty verdicts - returned after jury deliberations lasting more than six hours - gave federal authorities a high-profile victory in a city where threats against police informants can stymie investigators and derail prosecutions.

Nakie Harris, 30, Richard Royal, 21, and Terrence Smith, 24, will serve at least 40 years in prison without parole. Each was convicted on all six charges, which included witness tampering, conspiracy to commit witness tampering and use of a firearm in the commission of a crime. They are scheduled to return to U.S. District Court on Feb. 3 for sentencing.

"It's just not right," Harris' mother, Malon Smith, said yesterday, after the jury of eight women and four men announced the verdict. "He didn't do that to that woman."

Seven people have been convicted in the Jan. 15 firebombing in Harwood - an early-morning Molotov cocktail attack that shocked a neighborhood already suffering in the midst of boarded-up rowhouses, entrenched poverty and open-air drug markets. Four other defendants pleaded guilty, and three of them testified for the prosecution during the weeklong trial.

After the verdicts, federal prosecutors announced they had indicted Cedrick Bowman, 24, who was named in the trial as a co-conspirator. He faces charges of conspiracy to commit murder and witness intimidation.

The victim, Edna McAbier, declined to comment yesterday. The Harwood Community Association president survived the attack unscathed and testified last week.

McAbier told jurors she could not identify the attackers who lobbed flaming, gasoline-filled beer bottles onto her roof.

That forced Assistant U.S. Attorneys A. David Copperthite and Kwame J. Manley to turn to the gang members responsible for the attack in order to get convictions.

"We take witnesses as we find them. I make no excuses," Copperthite said in his closing arguments Monday afternoon.

Yesterday's result echoed a similar success for federal prosecutors two years ago in the case of a fatal fire set to eliminate witnesses.

The Oct. 16, 2002, blaze engulfed the East Baltimore rowhouse of Angela and Carnell Dawson, killing the couple and five of their children. Darrell L. Brooks, the arsonist, pleaded guilty in federal court in August 2003 and is serving a life sentence without parole.

In the Harwood case, authorities insisted that Terrence Smith, a reputed gang leader, was incensed about McAbier's calls and e-mails to police about drug dealers in her neighborhood.

But defense attorneys said they were optimistic that the convictions could be overturned, contending the case should never have been heard in federal court.

At issue is whether the law required McAbier to have contact with a federal agent in order for the witness intimidation to be considered a federal crime.


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