Attorney sees double standard at work in hotel-beating indictment

February 03, 2010|By Peter Hermann |

Last week, the Baltimore state's attorney's office declined to prosecute a Johns Hopkins University student from New Jersey who investigators concluded "feared for his safety" when he used a samurai sword to kill an unarmed intruder.

This week, prosecutors obtained an indictment charging two inner-city men with attempted first-degree murder for wrestling away an Uzi-style gun from a man who police said had just shot their friend in the head at a downtown hotel, and then beating him severely.

Prosecutors ruled the Hopkins chemistry major killed within the legal limits of the law governing self-defense. They ruled the two men at the hotel went overboard after disarming the gunman, crossing the murky and subjective line separating force necessary to subdue and force borne stemming from a desire for vengeance.

Defense attorney Warren A. Brown is railing against the indictment, calling the decision a mockery that promotes a double standard governed by race and class, which he says proves justice serves the well-off and successful but eludes the impoverished and less fortunate.

"It's very clear that when the system perceives a defendant as someone who has a bright future, that they are given the benefit of the doubt," Brown said. "When you have people who are in the cross-hairs of the criminal justice system, such as African-American males, there is a knee-jerk ... feeling that they aren't good candidates and they aren't afforded the same consideration."

Both cases attracted national attention. The student, John Pontolillo, was lauded for defending his property near a prestigious university in a dangerous city where crime is perceived to be out of control. The shooting at the party in adjoining rooms on the eighth floor of the Fayette Street Sheraton reinforced Baltimore's reputation for violence that can intrude even in places thought to be safe, frequented by tourists and business executives.

"The system is more inclined to put themselves in the position of the Hopkins student then they are in the position of young inner-city kids," Brown said. "But the end result is a disparate dispensation of fair and equitable treatment. You can't not indict the Hopkins kid for killing a man who raises his hand with nothing in it, and then indict a man who disarms a machine gun-wielding thug."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, could not comment on secret grand jury proceedings, but she said that "these types of cases are thoroughly investigated." She added, "It's one thing to subdue and restrain someone. Our investigation was to determine whether this went beyond subduing, restraining and disarming."

Burns declined to comment on specific evidence gathered, but she cautioned against "trying to equate the two cases or compare the two cases." She said prosecutors followed "the same process" in both, and she denied that the student received preferential treatment. She said "there is the disarming of an attacker but there is a line between that action and then pursuing an alleged assault."

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III spoke out forcefully after the Dec. 6 hotel shooting, calling the party-goers and combatants "idiots and morons," and he implored residents to join in the fight to "help us remove this scourge."

Brown said Tuesday that is exactly what his client, Dominic Anderson, and co-defendant Abdullah Omar, were doing when they beat Raymond Woodland, who remains in grave condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"Look what happens when you try to help," Brown said. "You get indicted."

Defense attorney Jerry Tarud, a former Baltimore police officer who is not involved in either case, called the indictment in the hotel shooting "nonsense" and said it sends a message that "if you see a crime, don't help; turn your head."

Another defense lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, called the two cases a "classic example of disparity of justice. If you're going to indict in one part of the city, you're almost compelled to indict in another part of the city and let the jury be the determining factor."

Pettit said that even if prosecutors are on solid legal ground in handling the two cases differently, the perception "smacks of class and race, even if it's not."

The difference is in the details.

The rented house the Hopkins student shared with his roommates on East University Parkway had been broken into before, and on the night of Sept. 14, police had paid a visit to warn Pontolillo about intruders. He joined the officers on a search, but they found no one. Later that night, the student grabbed his sword and went out again.

This time, he found Donald Rice, a career criminal, hiding in the dark near a garage. Prosecutors said Rice "came toward" the student with his "arms raised" and that Pontolillo, backed up against the garage door, could not determine that the man's hands were empty. The student swung his sword once, police and prosecutors said, fatally injuring Rice.

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