Soldiers face gun charges, delay in Iraq deployment

One said he fired shots in air to disperse threatening men

April 16, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Two soldiers involved in an altercation outside a Baltimore nightclub in which a gun was fired twice into the air could miss their deployments to Iraq this week after their attorney failed to get their trial postponed until the end of their 15-month tour.

Pfc. Denario Wesson, 19, and Spc. Joshua Johnson, 24, will have to stay behind and face possible jail time, said their attorney, Arthur M. Frank, who sharply criticized prosecutors yesterday for pursuing the case and "carelessly disregarding" his client's duties to the American people at a time of war.

At a hearing Monday, Judge Charles A. Chiapparelli left the final decision on a 15- to 18-month postponement to a city prosecutor, who rejected it. Earlier, according to a tape of the hearing, the judge had asked, "Do we need this kind of a bad guy to be in our Army? Firing shots in Baltimore City at midnight?"

Yesterday, Frank launched a campaign on behalf of his clients. The attorney sent letters of support to the media from the soldiers' commanding officer at Fort Hood, Texas, Robert E. Plowey, who wrote that he was "exhausting all of his efforts" on his soldiers' behalf.

And he issued a scathing news release that questioned the patriotism of city authorities, who had charged Wesson with reckless endangerment and handgun violations and Johnson with handgun violations.

"Their commander told me today that the morale in their unit is so low because the guys were such leaders there," Frank said. "This case could end the brilliant military careers of these two young men. The callous indifference to the requests of the U.S. Army and Judge Advocate General to delay these trials for the good of our country is outrageous."

The pressure on city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy didn't end there. Frank said her chief deputy received a call from a judge advocate general, in what a legal expert described as "unusual" pressure from the Army.

"It doesn't make orderly justice, an 18-month postponement, to me," said Will Abercrombie Jr., an Edgewood attorney who routinely handles cases involving military personnel from Aberdeen Proving Ground. "But they should be able to work this thing out. A JAG being involved is unusual. Usually, it doesn't reach them."

The case against Wesson, a Baltimore native, and Johnson began March 19 outside a nightclub in the Cherry Hill neighborhood in southern Baltimore.

In a written statement to Army attorneys, Wesson said that a group of men had harassed his cousin inside Club Taste International and followed the group outside. He wrote that the men, who said they had guns and bullets that could "fly in you," surrounded the car Wesson and Johnson were using.

Wesson wrote that he reached into the car, retrieved a handgun and fired two shots in the air to "scare them off" and "give us enough time to the leave the area without anyone getting injured or hurt."

Responding to a 911 call, police pulled over a Dodge Charger matching the caller's description. Wesson was driving, Johnson was riding in the front seat, and Wesson's cousin and her friend were in the back, Wesson wrote.

According to court records, police recovered a black and silver Smith & Wesson and a black .45-caliber Ruger concealed under each of the front seats.

Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Baltimore police, said that from the department's perspective, "someone fired a gun and an arrest was made.

"If the people on trial think there are mitigating circumstances, that is for the court to work out," he said. "We're not going to get into an argument about the relative patriotism of excusing criminal behavior."

On Monday, Chiapparelli not only denied Frank's request for a postponement but also the state's request for a 30-day one. Prosecutors are awaiting the results of gunshot residue tests, according to an audio recording of the hearing. The trial is scheduled for Tuesday in Baltimore District Court.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for Jessamy, said her boss and Mayor Sheila Dixon are taking gun cases "very seriously," pointing to regular meetings, new initiatives and efforts to increase penalties for gun crimes.

"We will continue to hold offenders accountable for discharging weapons in our community," Burns wrote in an e-mail. "The potential for serious harm and deadly injury to our citizens is too great."

Burns also wrote that it is standard for prosecutors to request jail time for a first-time gun offender. Plowey, Wesson and Johnson's commanding officer in the 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery, wrote letters to prosecutors, arguing that "it would truly be best for all parties involved if this legal matter could come to a rapid conclusion."

Wesson and Johnson are stationed at Fort Hood and were on leave in Baltimore visiting Wesson's grandfather and cousin, Frank said. Wesson was born in Baltimore but frequently moved because his father is in the Army. Johnson is from Newport News, Va., Frank said.

According to Plowey, Wesson has received numerous commendations from battalion leaders and the matter is an "unfortunate blemish" on an otherwise "promising career."

Plowey said that "junior soldiers" look to Johnson for guidance "in difficult times" and that Johnson was a man who had "avoided pitfalls which often plague young soldiers."

Frank said it was both soldiers' first deployment to Iraq. Wesson wrote that he had just completed vigorous training in Mexico.

"His loss is truly damaging to the overall integrity of our unit," Plowey wrote.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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