A Baltimore man convicted of killing two men was sentenced this week to two terms of life plus 170 years in prison by a judge who questioned why he was allowed to stay in this country after previous convictions.
Bagada Dionas, 23, and his father legally immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s as refugees from Liberia, Baltimore prosecutor Rita Wisthoff-Ito said in court Monday. But in his teen years, the younger Dionas amassed a juvenile record that included armed robberies, drug dealing and car theft, according to court records. In May 2005, Dionas pleaded guilty to armed robbery as an adult. He served less than three years in prison, including jail time before the conviction.
As Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis sentenced Dionas in the July 2007 shooting deaths of Maurice White and Wayne White, he asked why Dionas was not "deported then and there" after the 2005 robbery conviction.
Wisthoff-Ito said the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services "dropped the ball" and that, had Dionas been deported, "this murder never would have happened."
Conviction of a crime is grounds for deportation, as judges remind defendants each time they plead guilty in court. But Maryland prison officials have never routinely checked the immigration status of inmates, saying that it would overburden an already taxed staff.
Some state lawmakers assailed that policy last year during a debate over whether to continue issuing Maryland licenses to undocumented drivers. Under a state law passed this year, new drivers must present documentation of their lawful presence in the United States.
A prison spokesman said that the department recently began cracking down on inmates eligible for deportation.
In January, the state agency signed an agreement with federal immigration officials to check the citizenship status of inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, meaning Dionas would not have been subject to it even if it had been in place at the time of his release in early 2007.
When an eligible inmate has served one-quarter of his sentence, prison officials conduct a file review to determine whether that person might be subject to deportation. Names are forwarded to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which can begin immediate deportation.
Mark Vernarelli, a prisons spokesman, could not say whether anyone has been deported under this new agreement.
Prison officials chose not to include violent criminals, he said, "because we did not want to create the impression that violent criminals would somehow be 'rewarded' with parole - even if it meant deportation."
At the sentencing hearing for Dionas, a recording of which was reviewed by The Baltimore Sun, Wisthoff-Ito said she was raising the immigration history to show "how many times this defendant has been given a big break in life."
Dionas been out of prison for just a few weeks when Maurice White, 22, and Wayne White, 24, were gunned down in the parking lot of a Northeast Baltimore apartment complex. Prosecutors said the Whites were brothers.
Prosecutors said Dionas, firing an assault rifle, and a younger man, Charlie Stevenson, firing a semiautomatic handgun, ambushed the White brothers. Wayne White's girlfriend and 8-month-old son, who were in a car at the scene, were uninjured by the hail of bullets, prosecutors said.
Stevenson, who has not stood trial, is scheduled for a competency hearing next month.