Allegations vs. U.S. lawyers are dismissed

Misconduct claim arose in drug case

October 14, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A judge in Baltimore has dismissed misconduct allegations against two federal prosecutors and has blamed defense attorneys for guiding their clients into guilty plea agreements that failed to protect them from a more serious indictment.

The order released yesterday by U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. vindicates the approach taken by prosecutors Jason M. Weinstein and Steven H. Levin in the case of Howard and Raeshio Rice, two brothers about to stand trial on charges that they ran a violent drug gang in the Baltimore region.

"The ruling said that prosecutors did nothing wrong," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said yesterday. "And the ruling concluded that the defense attorneys did something wrong."

The legal imbroglio had prompted some defense attorneys to wonder whether an honest deal could still be brokered with prosecutors who might be secretly plotting future indictments against their clients, even as they plead guilty to lesser charges.

Rosenstein said such fears were unfounded.

"I don't think this will have any chilling effect at all," the state's top federal prosecutor said. "All this means is that [defendants]get immunity only if they negotiated for it and have it in a written agreement."

In an original draft of their plea agreement, the Rices' crime was described as one part of a drug conspiracy that lasted from 2002 until 2004, included other co-conspirators and covered general violations of drug laws. The agreement did not offer immunity from future prosecution.

The final plea agreement did include a so-called immunity clause but covered a much narrower crime and time period - from the fall of 2003 until February 2004. The clause specifically added that "this agreement does not provide any protection against prosecution for any crimes except as set forth above."

The condensed time frame left out a critical month in the eyes of defense attorneys - June 2003. It was during that month that Marvin Nutter was killed. Prosecutors now allege that the Rices were involved in Nutter's death

In 2004, the brothers nonetheless pleaded guilty in federal court to a single count of conspiracy to distribute heroin. Their attorneys said in court papers that they believed that the plea would protect them from any future federal prosecution related to their drug dealing, according to court papers.

But the Rices were charged again, this time in January 2005, with distributing more than 1,500 kilograms of cocaine and heroin over almost a decade ending in 2004.

The indictment, which could bring life sentences for the brothers, also seeks forfeiture of $27 million in criminal proceeds as well as high-priced houses and luxury vehicles. The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 30 against the Rices and their alleged hit-man, Eric Hall, who could receive the death penalty if convicted.

When the new indictment came, the Rices cried foul, filing court motions to block the indictment and blaming their old attorneys for failing to warn them.

Those attorneys, Peter Ward and Steven H. Sacks, testified at a June hearing that the Rice brothers pleaded guilty to a single heroin count only because prosecutors suggested the plea would insulate them against any more serious charges. But both lawyers also acknowledged that they did not thoroughly examine the plea agreements their clients signed for such assurances.

Ward and Sacks, and the Rices' current attorneys, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

Any prior drug conviction for the Rices could now 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.

Quarles did rule that Raeshio Rice will have his guilty plea thrown out because he was ill-served by his original attorney. His brother Howard did not make the same motion before the court so his original drug conviction continues to stand.

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