Despite being fired, denounced, interrupted and generally frustrated by their clients during the past several years, attorneys for four Maryland men accused of racketeering, murder, illegal weapons possession and drug distribution dutifully rose to their defense recently through opening statements in what's expected to be a lengthy jury trial in federal court in Baltimore.
The defendants, Willie Mitchell, Shelly Wayne Martin, Shawn Gardner and Shelton Harris - all refuse to acknowledge that they actually are defendants. They've disrupted proceedings and seized the courtroom microphone during pre-trial hearings, objecting to the word defendant along with the notion that the court has any jurisdiction over them.
"I do not consent to any of these proceedings. I do not understand any of these proceedings," Mitchell said in a prepared speech largely echoed by his co-defendants during a 2005 hearing.
Such claims are part of a so-far fruitless legal strategy known as the "flesh and blood" or "free man" defense, in which those accused of crimes claim that the federal courts, governed by the U.S. Constitution, have no authority over their "flesh and blood."
The strategy has roots going back to the post-Civil War ratification of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal rights and led some slavery proponents to claim that the Constitution no longer applied to them, said Abraham Dash, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Law.
It's the bane of defense attorneys - "Basically, the judge told us just to do our jobs," Thomas L. Crowe, who represents Martin, said in an interview - but the strategy is gaining momentum in the federal prison system.
Attorneys think these four learned of it in the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, known as "Supermax," where inmates awaiting trial will grasp at any hope they can. And it further complicates an already complex case, with the prosecution promising to use the "flesh and blood" actions as evidence of racketeering.
In the past three years, 10 to 15 people have tried the "flesh and blood" defense in Baltimore, said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "What's notable about it," he added, "is that it's always unsuccessful and usually counterproductive."
The trial has been a long time coming. The defendants were indicted federally in early 2004; by then, Gardner had been tried and convicted in state court for one of the five murders the men are now charged with. And lawyers on both sides admit that the language, if not the details, in the case are likely to offend, and perhaps shock, the jurors.
The facts of the case are "like a descent into Inferno" or "like the layers of civilization are being peeled back," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Harding said in his opening statement.
The case reads like an inner-city crime drama, with wasted college opportunities, rap star wannabes, killings in a boxing champion's car, drug dealing, threats against "snitches," a self-interested witness alleged to be a local hit man, and a potentially damning conversation caught on the voice mail of a victim's mother-in-law.
The prosecution claims that the four men - three of whom grew up together in Randallstown - started off as small-time drug dealers in the 1990s, eventually melding into an organized crime unit that terrorized the Baltimore underworld. They're being prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, known as RICO, originally created to prosecute members of the Mafia. Under the act, each member of such an organization can be held responsible for the crimes of other members.
According to Harding, things turned deadly for the group in 2002, after a birthday party, held at Hammerjacks in Baltimore, for Kevin Liles, who rose from an internship at Def Jam Records to become executive vice president of Warner Music Group.
After the party, Mitchell allegedly stabbed three members of a rival drug organization. Then, fearing he would be killed in retaliation, he arranged for the murder of the man he believed had been hired to kill him - along with the man's former girlfriend, who was seated next to him, according to prosecutors. The bodies were found in a 1999 Infiniti Q45 belonging to former heavyweight boxing champion Hasim Rahman, who had employed the dead man at one of his clothing stores.
Mitchell and Harris founded a rap company together, Shake Down Entertainment Ltd., which Harding says was used to intimidate other Baltimore criminals through song lyrics. In the opening scene of Stop Snitchin' 2, a follow-up to the controversial Baltimore-produced DVD that condemns witnesses' cooperation with police, Harris' voice can be heard identifying three men as "snitches" on a cell phone, Harding said.