After plea deal, a bombshell

Defense says clients unfairly face new federal charges after drug case agreement

March 06, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

Evidently, the Rice brothers assumed their troubles in federal court were behind them.

In a 2004 deal with federal prosecutors, Howard and Raeshio Rice each pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute heroin. They received substantial prison sentences - about 11 years for Howard and 12 years for Raeshio - in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

They thought the case was over. So did their lawyers. Chief Judge Benson E. Legg told Raeshio Rice that he could live a "productive life with the long period that will remain to him after his release."

Then prosecutors dropped a bomb.

Less than a week after Raeshio's sentencing, federal prosecutors stunned the Rice brothers in January 2005 by charging them with a slew of new crimes, including two killings in Baltimore, from the same investigation. Defense lawyers believe the Rices' earlier guilty pleas could make them eligible for death penalty.

"It's fair to say that I was shocked," said Peter Ward, a former Baltimore Circuit Court judge who served as Raeshio Rice's original attorney and negotiated his plea agreement.

The prosecutors' hard-line approach to the case has created a mini-tempest at the courthouse. Attorneys for the Rices have asked Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to dismiss the new racketeering indictment with prejudice, saying prosecutors intentionally misled Legg about the imminent indictment.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jason M. Weinstein and Steven H. Levin's actions "amounted to prosecutorial misconduct," the Rices' attorneys, Harry J. Trainor and William B. Purpura, wrote in a motion filed in late January.

Purpura declined to comment on the motion and Trainor did not return a phone message left this week with his office.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein says his office will oppose the motion when it submits court papers on the issue this week.

"Our response will include important facts that the defendants' brief omits or simply misstates," Rosenstein said in a statement. "We expect to prove to the judge that our prosecutors did nothing wrong."

In an interview, Rosenstein added: "It's not unusual for defendants to make allegations of misconduct by the prosecution, Fortunately, in most cases, the accusations don't have any merit."

No date for a hearing has been set.

News of the motion worried a number of defense lawyers who practice at the federal courthouse but declined to comment publicly for fear of reprisal. One law enforcement official privately wondered who would want to make a deal with the U.S. attorney's office if defendants thought a federal prosecutor would just come back for more.

But were the Rices actually deceived by duplicitous prosecutors? Or were they simply outflanked by smart ones?

Several legal experts who reviewed the case at The Sun's request believe that prosecutors might have acted within the letter of the law - but at a high price.

"If the word of the prosecutor is no good and the defense attorney can't guarantee that a deal is a deal, then that creates a disincentive for the defendant to plead the case out," said Richard W. Bourne, a former Justice Department official who has taught legal ethics at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "That could have serious implications for the whole system."

As in most federal courts around the country, more than 90 percent of people charged in Maryland reach plea agreements with prosecutors, according to recent statistics.

"If defendants don't plead, there are not enough judges to try all of the cases," Bourne said. "The system depends on plea agreements to function."

But, he added, "if defendants don't believe that the deal will end the process for them, there will obviously be less incentive for them to make the deal."

The Rice brothers were originally indicted on Feb. 19, 2004, charged with conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute heroin from the fall of 2003 through early 2004.

Ward was appointed to represent Raeshio, now 33. His brother, Howard, now 39, retained lawyer Steven H. Sacks. During negotiations, prosecutors offered several options, according to the Rices' motion.

The first option was a trial. If the Rices did not accept a plea, prosecutors promised that they would re-indict the brothers with a host of new charges, alleging they were involved in a large cocaine and heroin trafficking operation, court papers say.

Other options included pleading guilty and assisting prosecutors, or admitting their guilt but refusing to cooperate, the motion said. Prosecutors would recommend less prison time if the pair cooperated, according to the motion.

Both brothers eventually decided to plead guilty without cooperating.

"My understanding of this plea agreement was that it was to end all of the possible cases against Mr. Rice and the Government would not pursue other charges against Mr. Rice," Sacks wrote in an affidavit.

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