The defense attorney in a Baltimore murder trial is accused of visiting the prosecution's main witness in jail over the weekend and trying to convince him to change his story, allegedly by asking him, "How does it feel to be a snitch? You know what happens to people when they snitch? They leave jail in a box."
Leslie Stein, 65, a defense attorney for 28 years, spent more than an hour on the witness stand yesterday as prosecutors sought to have him removed from the case - and to introduce evidence of his alleged threats against the witness in the murder trial.
Prosecutors allege that Stein met with the witness four times since Saturday and spoke with him on the telephone - a conversation they taped - yesterday morning.
Stein, who has not been criminally charged, forcefully defended himself, saying he made no threats against the witness and never urged him to lie. He testified that the witness told him during their jailhouse visit Saturday that "he'd made a terrible mistake" in accusing the defendant and wanted to correct it by testifying on his behalf.
The hearing on Stein's interactions with Christopher Meadows began yesterday afternoon and is to continue this morning in Baltimore Circuit Court. Prosecutors presented evidence of the meetings, but the question of whether Stein threatened Meadows pits the lawyer's word against that of a convicted drug dealer who admits to having gang ties.
A dozen homicide and senior prosecutors filled courtroom benches to watch the unusual proceeding. Some said the situation revealed simmering tensions between city prosecutors and a few defense attorneys they believe are pushing the boundaries of ethical behavior by trying to influence witnesses in a city that struggles with a "stop snitching" culture.
Stein represents Bryant Williams, 24, who is accused of gunning down Darius Harmon in May 2007 on Barclay Street. The trial was to begin yesterday. Meadows, 26, who was arrested last year in a gun case, told police that Williams had killed Harmon. Meadows and Williams had ties to the Young Gorilla Family, a gang with strong membership in the city jail and in prisons, Meadows testified.
Not long after he became a witness against Williams, threats began, Meadows said. Last August, Meadows wrote to Circuit Judge Wanda Heard: "My life is in danger. ... I am asking for your help because I am scared."
Attorney Leonard J. Levine, who stepped in as Williams' defense attorney yesterday, said that letter shows that any fear that Meadows might have felt predated his meetings with Stein.
"Threats against you were nothing new to you?" Levine asked Meadows.
"No, they were just icing on the cake," Meadows said of Stein's alleged comments to him.
The phone call yesterday morning, recorded by federal authorities after Meadows told city homicide detectives on Tuesday about his encounters with Stein, does not clearly indicate whether it was Stein who proposed the idea of Meadows changing his testimony. Stein does not threaten Meadows during the phone call.
Stein testified yesterday that he suspected he was being recorded.
Early in the call, which was played in court, Stein said, "I don't like talking on the phone like this."
His conversation guided by authorities, Meadows sought assurances from Stein that he and his family would be safe if he did not testify against Williams. Stein advised him: "Tell the truth."
Stein told Meadows that Williams said that "there would be no more anger" if Meadows changed his story.
Apart from his safety, Meadows had another concern: He was convicted of a gun charge in federal court, classified as a career criminal (he has at least four city convictions, most for drug dealing) and sentenced to 10 years in a system with no parole. Part of Meadows' federal court deal was that he would be truthful and cooperative with authorities in other investigations, including the Williams case, in exchange for the possibility of a diminished sentence.
Meadows worried that changing his testimony would be considered a breach of that agreement. In the taped conversation, Stein tells him, "I'll be able to lead you. I can create a record for you that this [new version] is the truth."
Stein's most egregious behavior, prosecutors alleged, occurred in four unrecorded meetings at the city jail and in the lockup in the courthouse basement. When he visited Meadows in jail, Stein signed himself in as the man's attorney, documents show.
Meadows testified that he felt pressured by Stein to change his story. He said Stein talked about snitching and what happens to snitches, and, in a conversation Tuesday at the courthouse lockup - an area filled with dozens of men awaiting court appearances - Stein loudly accused Meadows of being a snitch.
A correctional officer testified that, while she did not hear what Stein said to Meadows, she did find it odd that he was talking to a witness instead of his client. She asked Stein to leave, and he did, she testified.