Trial tactic decried

Murder accusation may figure in dealer's term

May 16, 2008|By Justin Fenton and Madison Park | Justin Fenton and Madison Park,Sun reporters

A federal jury decided last year that Gary "Fat Boy" Williams Jr. was a drug dealer. But when his sentencing hearing resumes today in a Baltimore courtroom, he will face accusations that he was involved in the shooting death of an informant though he has never been charged with murder.

Federal prosecutors are mounting what is essentially a trial within a trial in hopes of winning a stiffer sentence. Federal sentencing law allows a judge to consider alleged crimes that have been refuted at trial or which a defendant has never been charged with, a provision that critics say flouts the constitutional protections of the trial-by-jury system.

"It's a practice that is obviously ripe for abuse," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "The prosecutors can use this technique to punish someone for a murder that they're not willing to formally charge and prosecute, and the result is that the defendant receives the penalty but none of the due process protections."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section of Friday's editions of The Sun about the sentencing of a Harford County man on drug charges misspelled the first name of the defense attorney.
The attorney's name is Christie Needleman
The Sun regrets the error.

Williams' lawyer, Christine Needleman, said, "It's supposed to be a sentencing for my client's first [federal] drug conviction. ... Instead, they're trying to tack on a murder that can't be proven to send him to prison for life without parole, without any of the procedures."

Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said Williams is accused of ordering the killing of a 35-year-old Harford County woman in February 2006 to obstruct the drug investigation, making it "relevant conduct" to the drug dealing. Prosecutors must prove his involvement by only a "preponderance of evidence."

In a criminal trial, a defendant must be proven guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt," a higher threshold.

Sentencing guidelines call for Williams, 28, of Abingdon, to receive 14 to 17 years on the drug charges, but the murder accusations could stretch it to life.

"The issue today is that he has been convicted, and we have an obligation to bring to the judge's attention all the relevant conduct," Rosenstein said. "You don't want a judge to flip a coin. You want a defendant who murdered a witness getting a sentence in the high end."

In 2005, an Arkansas man charged with killing a 13-year-old boy, his mother and the mother's boyfriend in a six-hour rampage pleaded guilty to two lesser counts of drug-related charges, and the murder charges were dismissed. But during sentencing, they were brought forward as relevant conduct, and he received life in prison.

An Ohio man found guilty of mail fraud and forgery was linked at sentencing to a killing in 2001. Facing 15 to 21 months on the original charges, his sentence was increased to 30 years.

In a case strikingly similar to Williams', a 35-year-old West Virginia man convicted last year of several drug and money-laundering counts received a 240-year sentence after the judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that he also ordered the killing of an informant working with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. District Judge David A. Faber acknowledged that the evidence linking Maurice Taft "Mo" Gibson to the murder probably wouldn't have held up in a criminal trial.

"Gibson had motives for ordering the murder. ... Further, it is clear that [the two men accused of carrying out the killing] are hiding something," Faber wrote in an opinion. "While the evidence falls short of meeting the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard that would apply in a murder trial, the court is persuaded that it meets the preponderance of the evidence test that applies to sentencing issues."

Charles Miller, the U.S. attorney for West Virginia's Southern District, said the provision is useful for holding defendants accountable for all of their actions related to a crime. He noted that if formally charged with murder, a defendant would face the death penalty, something that is not on the table with sentencing enhancements.

"The intent of the federal sentencing guidelines is to punish a defendant not so much for what they're convicted of, but what they did, if that makes sense," Miller said. "If you kill somebody in connection with drug dealing, you ought to be sentenced for murder. Sometimes the evidence is not as strong as you would like, but the standard is lower at sentencing."

Armed with more evidence in a separate case, Miller's office successfully won murder convictions against a man and a woman accused of killing an informant.

Andrew C. White, a Baltimore defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said defendants have ample opportunity to counter accusations brought forward in sentencing.

"It's extremely frustrating as a defense lawyer to have the government bring up inflammatory facts not proved beyond a reasonable doubt," he said, "but from the other perspective, it certainly can't be said that it's not fair or relevant that a judge should consider such information in determining what sentence to give."

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