Pressures dictate plea deals

But sentences in city homicide cases aren't necessarily a bargain for the convicted

Confronting Crime -- The Battle For Baltimore's Future

July 25, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN REPORTER

The evidence showed that the gang member grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun from his house, stormed down the middle of the street and fired into the chest of a man wearing the color of another gang. Then he turned the gun on a bystander and killed him, too.

Eric Tate, 18, accepted a plea deal and was convicted of first-degree murder in both shootings. But he could still be eligible for parole at age 43.

The reality in Baltimore is that a combination of pressures -- including an overloaded criminal docket and uncooperative witnesses -- leads to plea deals that can appear to be generous.

In Tate's case, his plea in May included a prison sentence of two concurrent life terms, with all but 50 years suspended. Inmates convicted of violent crimes typically have their first parole hearing after serving half their sentence.

The tattoo on his arm identifies Tate as a member of the Young Gorilla Family gang, which claims much of the Barclay neighborhood. It was there that 20-year-old Anthony Taylor and his friend Adrian Holiday, 19, were shot to death early Sept. 10. Taylor was wearing red, the color of the Bloods gang.

At Tate's sentencing hearing yesterday, the families of both victims told him that they wish he could be put behind bars forever.

"It makes us sick to our stomachs that you'll be eligible for parole in 25 or 30 years," said Darlene Richardson, Holiday's aunt.

"Whatever you get, it will not be enough for what you have taken from us," Taylor's mother said.

The judge said he had "reluctantly" accepted the plea deal.

"I didn't like the agreement," Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait said in court. "We have two deaths. Why should this man have the possibility of parole?"

Schwait went on to explain why the plea deal was the best choice.

He noted "problems with the case" that might have led to an acquittal and explained Maryland's complicated formula for parole, which will ensure that Tate stays behind bars for at least 25 years.

Witnesses were scared, Schwait and prosecutor Theresa Shaffer said. They were also uncooperative, which Shaffer attributed in part to pretrial publicity in The Sun about gang problems.

And there was no gun or any other physical evidence, Schwait said, so a jury might have been less inclined to convict.

The forensic technology displayed on TV shows has had a well-documented effect on the expectations of jurors.

"Given the uncertainty of any trial in the city of Baltimore," Shaffer said, a plea deal was the best option in the Tate case.

It is an option that Baltimore prosecutors exercise often.

More than half of the 179 homicide cases that reached the courts last year ended in plea agreements, compared with 35 jury convictions. Plea agreements accounted for about one-third of the 711 nonfatal shooting and gun cases in Circuit Court.

"Especially in murder cases, in a city where there are too many, a plea secures a conviction against the many unknown variables that can affect a juror's decision to convict," said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office.

Those variables, she said, include "missing, incomplete or a total lack of evidence ... recanting, missing or underground witnesses."

A key difference between a jury conviction and a plea agreement conviction is that sentences after jury convictions tend to be longer.

The differences are most profound in convictions for second-degree murder. In a case last year, for example, Elbert Myers pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 years. Jason Lee Sinclair, charged in the same crime, was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years.

In convictions for first-degree murder, all sentences, by law, must include a life term. But, as in Tate's case, a judge can suspend part of the sentence.

Schwait explained yesterday that a life sentence can mean less prison time than a life sentence with all but 50 years suspended.

That, a parole official said, is because a prisoner with a life sentence is eligible for his first parole hearing after about 11 1/2 years. One with a 50-year sentence isn't eligible until he has served 25 years.

There is a complication.

The governor's approval is required for the early release of any prisoner with "life" in his sentence, so when Tate has his first parole hearing, the governor will decide whether to release him. In recent years, governors have been reluctant to do that.

Schwait said he didn't want to predict what future governors might do, so the life sentence with all but 50 years suspended appealed to him more than a life sentence.

Tate's only way out of prison might be through what prison officials call "diminution credits," essentially time off for good behavior.

David R. Blumberg, chairman of the state's parole commission, said inmates can earn 75 to 100 days off each year. As a result, Tate could reach his "mandatory release" date after about 40 years.

Had Tate been given a life sentence, he would have had no chance for mandatory release and would have had to rely on the governor to approve his parole.

"The advantage to having life is that you might be eligible [for a parole hearing] sooner, but your chance of parole is more remote, Blumberg said. "It can be confusing, and some people think it's arcane. But this is the same way it's done in most states."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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