Defense lawyers admit to error with plea deals

Former attorneys for 2 facing drug-related murder charges said they didn't fully read clients' agreement


Two defense lawyers admitted in federal court in Baltimore yesterday that they overlooked critical language inserted into a plea agreement, an oversight that they said could now help prosecutors seek the death penalty against their former clients.

The acknowledgment from lawyers Peter Ward and Steven H. Sacks came as their former clients, Howard and Raeshio Rice, are attempting to persuade a judge to throw out a new indictment for drug-related murders against them.

New attorneys for the Rices are asking Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to dismiss the pending racketeering charges, saying prosecutors intentionally misled the previous judge about the imminent indictment.

In U.S. District Court in Baltimore, prosecutors charged the Rices and others in January 2005 with distributing a large amount of drugs - 1,500 kilograms of cocaine and heroin over almost a decade ending in 2004 - as part of a violent Northwest Baltimore gang. The indictment seeks forfeiture of $27 million in criminal proceeds as well as high-priced houses and luxury vehicles.

Their trial is set for October. Justice Department officials have not yet announced whether they intend to seek the death penalty against the Rices. The prior drug conviction for the Rices could put the brothers in greater jeopardy if they are found guilty in the pending case, which includes allegations of two contract killings, according to defense attorneys.

At issue in yesterday's court hearing was whether prosecutors made false promises to the Rices or whether the brothers' attorneys simply failed to represent them well.

Ward and Sacks insist the Rice brothers only pleaded guilty to a single heroin count because prosecutors suggested the plea would insulate them against any more serious charges in the future. But both lawyers acknowledged that they did not thoroughly examine the plea agreements their clients signed for such assurances.

"I did not read it fully," Ward said, explaining that he believed the agreement was very similar to an earlier version. In both versions, he said, he believed his client was protected from further prosecution.

But under cross examination, both Ward and Sacks conceded yesterday that the agreement offers the Rices no immunity.

Still, Ward, a former city judge who represented Raeshio Rice, said he was shocked to learn that the final agreement included additional language that specifically limited the scope of immunity for his client. Sacks offered a similar account yesterday, saying that he read the final agreement but did not notice how important the time limits were.

That language enabled prosecutors to charge Rice for a host of other crimes outside the confines of the agreement, Ward said. He testified he only learned of his oversight when he read in a newspaper about the new murder charges lodged against his client.

Prosecutors insisted they made no such promise, either in writing or in person. Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Johnston said that her colleagues, Jason M. Weinstein and Steven H. Levin, charged the Rices again days after their sentencing - this time with a raft of crimes that could carry the death penalty - because the agreement did not include cooperation from the Rices to go after other criminal acts.

Prosecutors also said the Rices did not agree to help authorities in other cases - a reason why the government would offer immunity from other crimes.

Joshua R. Treem, a prominent Baltimore defense attorney who testified as an expert for the Rices, said that a responsible defense attorney would have never let his client sign an agreement like the ones signed by the brothers. He also said that a critical, so-called immunity paragraph in the Rices' agreements raised a red flag, indicating that prosecutors were still contemplating additional charges against the Rices.

But Treem added that all attorneys should be expected to read and understand the kind of legal documents Ward and Sacks said they either didn't peruse or didn't comprehend fully.

The hearing is set to continue on Sept. 8 with witnesses for the prosecution.

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