Drug case tossed out on appeal

U.S. judge in Baltimore encouraged guilty pleas


A federal appeals court threw out yesterday convictions that sent three Baltimore gang members to prison for decades, saying the presiding judge had improperly encouraged the defendants to plead guilty.

"We can only conclude that the district court's role as an advocate for the Defendants' guilty pleas affected the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings," Judge Diana G. Motz wrote for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Richmond, Va.

Interviewed after the decision was announced yesterday, the federal judge in Baltimore, Andre M. Davis, admitted he overreached.

"I think the panel got it right," Davis said. "I think I crossed the line. Even the best judges sometimes makes mistakes."

Court transcripts show that Davis directly helped broker a deal for plea agreements. He also warned the defendants in the middle of their 2002 trial that they probably faced a life prison sentence if convicted by a jury.

But after encouraging reputed gang leader Eric L. Bennett to plead guilty to drug and weapons charges, Davis sentenced Bennett to a life sentence anyway. Davis declined yesterday to explain why. At the time, federal judges were required to follow sentencing guidelines, which are now considered advisory.

Two of Bennett's top lieutenants, Solomon Jones, now 26, and Tavon Bradley, now 27, also admitted their guilt. Davis sentenced Jones to 60 years in federal prison and Bradley to 24 1/2 years. Both later received separate prison sentences on state charges, according to Jones' attorney, Harvey Greenberg.

In her opinion yesterday, Motz concluded that Davis did not "improperly intend to coerce involuntary guilty pleas." Still, the appeals court judge found that Davis "repeatedly appeared to be an advocate for the pleas rather than a neutral arbiter."

Now all three convictions in federal court needed to be tossed out because of Davis' error, Motz ruled. She also ordered that any new trial for the men should be assigned to a different federal judge in Baltimore.

Yesterday, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the men would be charged and, if needed, tried again. All three are still in custody.

The rare rebuke for a sitting judge highlighted the different levels of activism allowed for judges in state and federal courts. In Maryland state courts, judges are permitted to take a direct role in prodding prosecutors and defense attorneys into plea agreements to avoid trial. But in federal court, the rules are different.

"Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 governs guilty pleas and clearly prohibits a court from participating in plea negotiations," wrote Motz, who is the wife of Judge J. Frederick Motz of the U.S. District Court for Maryland.

Even during the plea negotiations, Davis, a former state judge in Baltimore, appeared to know that his conduct might not stand up under review.

"This is very dangerous because ... an appellate court could regard the Court's actions as inappropriate, and, in some form or fashion, coercive," Davis said.

Still, Davis insisted from the bench that he was not forcing the defendants to plead guilty, only attempting to show them the risks of a jury trial, according to transcripts of court proceedings.

At one point, Davis lamented that the defendants had rejected offers to plead guilty. He added that "nobody can ever predict what a jury is going to do, but from all appearances, this is one of the strongest cases ever to be brought in this courthouse."

The case started in August 2000 with an indictment in U.S. District Court against Bennett, the reputed leader of a crack cocaine ring that stretched from street corners in Northeast Baltimore to Main Street in Westminster.

Federal prosecutors argued that Bennett's drug gang, known as the "Old York and Cator Boys," routinely used violence to protect its turf. Bennett ordered a pair of drive-by shootings Jan. 18, 2000, that left two young men dead, according to prosecutors.

"Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Eric Bennett managed to wield power and influence and enjoyed fierce and unquestioning loyalty from his fellow conspirators," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew G.W. Norman wrote to the judges on the 4th Circuit appellate court.

The case then stutter-stepped through Davis' courtroom, with the defendants repeatedly pondering and then rejecting plea offers from prosecutors.

The trial started in January 2002. On its second day, after Bennett's cousin testified against him, Davis asked prosecutors to leave the courtroom, and the judge addressed Bennett and his co-defendants while the jury was out of the room.

Davis restarted plea negotiations, but they were not successful. The trial continued for two more weeks. In February, Davis tried again.

"I don't understand why you continue to sit through this trial, to be perfectly blunt about it," the judge said, chastising Bennett and the other defendants.

Finally, Jones spoke up.

"You keep telling us to cop out, like we are already guilty," Jones told Davis, according to court papers.

Davis replied: "I keep telling you that you are presumed innocent."

"It don't seem like it," Jones shot back.

The next day, all three defendants pleaded guilty.


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