The Currie Plea: not guilty, kinda stupid

At senator's trial, a variation on the Rodricks Plea

October 19, 2011|Dan Rodricks

Every now and then, one of our local miscreants decides to break into a retail establishment by waiting until the wee hours and climbing down its chimney with the hope of gaining entry for grand theft. Often these chimneys haven't been used in years; they're sealed off with brick and mortar, then stuccoed.

Same for the burglar — boy, does he get stuccoed.

When he realizes that he can't climb out of the chimney, panic sets in. Hours, even days can go by before someone hears his pleas for help and calls the cops.

A fellow tried this several years ago at a liquor store at Belair Road and Erdman Avenue in Baltimore. His mission commenced at 2 a.m.; his muffled cries were detected at about 5 a.m. (He was lucky; back in the 1980s, a burglar of a South Baltimore jewelry store spent most of a weekend stuck in a chimney.)

Firefighters had to pull the Belair Road boob back up the chimney using a ladder truck, a rope and a harness. "He ain't too swift," the liquor store proprietor said of the soot-smeared miscreant.

A Northeastern District police officer remarked: "It's a shame they don't have a charge for stupidity."

While there might not be a charge for stupidity, there has been a plea of stupidity for years. It's the Rodricks Plea: "Guilty but mostly stupid."

I have been chronicling such cases for three decades now — the bank robber who wrote a stickup note on personalized stationery; the purse-snatch suspect who yelled, "That's not what I said!" when detectives asked him and five other men to recite a phrase for a police lineup; and about a thousand other points of light. It's the only kind of deviance we can laugh about: felons self-foiled, miscreants who mess up on the job, those crimes in which the only victims are the fools who attempt them.

Of course, the Rodricks Plea has never been made an official part of criminal procedure in the state of Maryland. No lawmaker in Annapolis has been willing to suggest that it become a legal option for defendants — that is, an admission of guilt with an acknowledgment that the defendant is sufficiently stupid to warrant some mercy by the sentencing judge.

I'm not saying that we make mercy mandatory, or that judges be required to consider stupidity as a mitigating factor when it comes to punishment. Rather, I'm saying that, in some circumstances, it might be appropriate. Moreover, if a defendant is contrite and willing to admit stupidity — not an easy thing for the masculine sociopath — then he deserves some credit for the self-awareness a Rodricks Plea suggests; it bodes well for his rehabilitation.

Frankly, I think the Rodricks Plea should be an option for defendants in federal cases.

Had the Rodricks Plea been in place when he was indicted in a bribery scheme, Ulysses S. Currie, the Maryland state senator on trial in federal court in Baltimore, might have considered the option.

His defense called witnesses who suggested that Senator Currie is not the sharpest tool in the shed — a good guy, but not a detail man. "No one would call him smart," said Tim Maloney, a former state delegate from Prince George's County who practices law in Maryland.

One hears the echo of the Belair Road liquor store owner in that remark: "He ain't too swift."

Rep. Steny Hoyer, who was the Maryland Senate president before going to Congress in 1981, said Senator Currie is honest, but "not particularly taken with details or organization." Note that Mr. Hoyer did not describe Mr. Currie as "a big picture guy," which is what people usually say when they're trying to describe a visionary leader — disorganized, but full of ideas and daring.

That's not what we have here. What we got initially from the defense in the Currie case is a picture of a man who, while entrusted with public office and the chairmanship of a powerful legislative committee, is neither bright nor well-organized, and so he might have gotten into something — a bribery scheme with a supermarket chain — without fully comprehending its consequences. It's a variation on the Rodricks Plea: "Not guilty, and kinda stupid." Can't wait to hear what the Currie jurors think about that one.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is

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