Light sentences no more

life term for `Itchy Man'

Solothal Thomas and accomplice convicted of murder for hire


Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas, the West Baltimore hit man whose uncanny ability to avoid conviction turned him into a symbol of the endemic problems troubling state courts in Baltimore, will spend the rest of his life in prison after a federal jury found him guilty yesterday of murder for hire.

Over a two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the Maryland U.S. attorney's office showcased its ability to turn the leaders of one of the city's largest drug organizations against each other, doled out protection for jittery witnesses and warned co-defendants that they could face lengthy prison sentences if they chose not to cooperate.

Prosecutors offered convictions for Thomas and his accomplice, Eduardo Countess, 30, as proof that the federal justice system can secure convictions that appear beyond the reach of local authorities acting alone.

"It's a good example of the kind of case where we feel an obligation to step in," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said outside the courthouse.

As leaders of departments once stymied by failure to keep Thomas behind bars, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and city Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm struck an appreciative tone yesterday.

"This is clearly a good day for the law-abiding residents of Baltimore," Hamm said in a statement. "Our thanks go out to the federal prosecutors who worked on the case, as well as to our many partners in law enforcement who helped bring these two violent criminals to justice."

Before the federal jury returned its guilty finding yesterday, Thomas, 30, had been charged with killing two people and attempting to kill a dozen more as part of his work as an "enforcer" for a large drug organization, according to prosecutors. But time after time, he won acquittals or pleaded guilty to lesser charges, receiving relatively short stints in prison.

His profile in evasion became a centerpiece of The Sun's 2002 series "Justice Undone." Thomas' past success in the courtroom was aided by incomplete investigations by police, oversights by prosecutors and a lack of cooperation from witnesses too afraid to speak out, according to The Sun's investigative report.

The latest trial for Thomas started June 13 with a promise by prosecutors to show how he and Countess fatally shot a Milford Mill man 15 times nearly five years ago in a murder-for-hire plot.

Admitted drug organization leader Tyree Stewart testified that he hired Thomas to kill Jesse Williams, a reformed drug dealer who robbed the organization in 1999.

Thomas, in turn, hired someone to assist him in the killing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Weinstein told jurors in opening statements.

The two, along with another man, arrived at Williams' home about 7 a.m. Oct. 2, 2001, and shot the victim as he was going to work, Weinstein said. Prosecutors said a man shot Williams five times, then Thomas fired 10 shots at Williams to "finish him off," Weinstein said.

One defense attorney for the men derided the government's cooperating witnesses as "liars, murderers and deal-seekers" who had committed heinous crimes and had previously lied to investigators.

Among them were Danta Thomas, 35, and Linwood Smith, 42, both of Baltimore, who pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. Stewart, 32, of Joppa and Corey Smith, 29, of Baltimore also testified and pleaded guilty, admitting their role in ordering the contract killing on behalf of their drug organization.

In the end yesterday, a jury of eight women and four men convicted Thomas and Countess of conspiracy to commit murder and use of a gun in a crime of violence. Thomas was acquitted of a single drug conspiracy charge. Both the murder and gun charges carry mandatory life sentences. Sentencing will be sometime this fall.

Jurors declined to comment on the case.

Thomas' family attended much of the two week trial. After the verdict, his aunt Rose Cooper lashed out at his brother, Danta Thomas, for testifying against him.

But Thomas never saw his brother's testimony.

Both Thomas and Countess were removed by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake before jury selection for disrupting the court.

Thomas claims the federal court has no jurisdiction over his "flesh and blood," a discredited legal theory that has become increasingly popular among defendants facing some of the most serious federal charges in Maryland.

In court papers, Thomas described himself as a troubled man born into extreme poverty who was all but abandoned in public housing by his drug-addicted parents

"You have a black male, 6'1", a 177 pounds, 28 years of age, never use drugs except smoke newports," Thomas wrote last year in a plea for psychological help. "I have been charged with 13 att-murder different times as well with 3 murders for the last pass 10 years. I've been through more pain than one person go though in a life time."

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