Street seeps into courts

Accusations link defense lawyers to defendants' culture

August 09, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz and Melissa Harris | Julie Bykowicz and Melissa Harris,Sun reporters

In two trials this week, Baltimore defense attorneys took the witness stand to defend themselves against allegations of witness tampering - evidence, prosecutors say, of some attorneys' willingness to push the boundaries by playing into the city's "street justice" culture.

Yesterday, a judge ruled that a jury can hear testimony from a prosecution witness who said defense attorney Leslie Stein urged him to change his story, telling him that "people don't last long when they snitch."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory said he didn't necessarily believe the witness, Christopher Meadows, over the 35-year veteran attorney, who denied the allegations. But the judge thought "there was enough there" that the jury in the murder trial of Stein's client, Bryant Williams, 24, should be allowed to decide who's telling the truth.

Stein could not be reached yesterday afternoon, but in testimony Thursday, he vigorously denied any improper conduct with Meadows, saying the witness told him he had "made a terrible mistake" in accusing Williams and wanted to right it by changing his testimony at the trial.

In another case, prominent defense attorney Ivan Bates took the stand Tuesday in the robbery trial of Charles Robinson, 31, one of his former clients. Bates was accused of negotiating a contract in which Robinson would pay a victim $690 in exchange for not pursuing civil or criminal "remedies."

When the victim, Richard Felty, testified in the trial, he said Robinson did not look like the person who robbed him. Robinson, who was also charged with obstruction of justice, was acquitted on all counts.

In an interview yesterday, Bates denied any wrongdoing. "That contract had nothing to do with Charles Robinson," he said. He asserted it was to prevent a civil action.

"I told the victim he would still have to come to court and he would have to tell the truth," Bates said. "Honest to God that's what I said."

'Rare exception'

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and top deputy state's attorneys met yesterday afternoon to review the cases involved, said Jessamy spokeswoman Margaret Burns. She said it would be "totally premature" to say whether prosecutors might press charges, such as obstruction of justice or witness intimidation, against the attorneys.

"This is the rare exception to the regular criminal justice process," Burns said of the hearings this week.

The Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission can also review the allegations. In the past three years, the commission has publicly disciplined about 30 city attorneys - most for financial misconduct.

Several seasoned city prosecutors interviewed this week said the majority of defense attorneys closely adhere to the rules of ethics. But they said that, even apart from the two trials this week, other recent court proceedings have been hampered by whole groups of witnesses suddenly showing up at the defendants' attorneys' offices to sign affidavits recanting their earlier statements to police.

"When the lawyers are involved, you really have to shake your head," said Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Shaffer, a homicide prosecutor for five years. She and many other prosecutors watched the two-day Stein hearing.

"You try to be optimistic about the defense bar," Shaffer said. "It's a profession. You would hope that people don't stoop to that behavior."

Just 'baloney'

Defense attorney Warren Brown, who also stopped by the Stein hearing, dismissed the prosecutors' complaints as "baloney."

"They need to shut up," he said. "They live in glass houses. Prosecutors, police, defense attorneys, even sometimes judges, all have an objective. Everybody, at times in the midst of the emotional practice of criminal law, finds themselves engaged in practices that somebody could complain about."

The public court hearings this week show that some of the alleged questionable behavior is being reviewed by judges.

In the trial of Charles Robinson, which began last week, his new defense attorney, Christie Needleman, called Bates as a witness to show the jury that her client was not obstructing justice when he made tape-recorded calls from jail to ensure that the victim, Felty, would be paid and wouldn't come to court.

Rather, Needleman said, Robinson was trying to execute a deal Bates had negotiated.

Circuit Judge Shirley Watts stopped Bates from answering many of the prosecutor's questions surrounding the contract. Bates said in an interview yesterday that the contract, which was signed by Robinson's mother while her son was in jail, had nothing to do with the criminal trial.

Attorney's doubts

Needleman said she was doubtful of Bates' version.

"The purpose [of the contract] was to control the outcome of the case," Needleman said in court. "For better or worse, or right or wrong, Bates believed this was a legitimate and legal and lawful way to prevent the state's attorney from picking up the case and forwarding it to trial."

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