A Baltimore landlord with a long history of violating lead-paint poisoning laws was sentenced Wednesday to a year and a day in prison by a federal judge, who called the now-bankrupt businessman a "scofflaw."
Cephus Murrell, 69, of Catonsville sat impassively in U.S. District Court as Judge Benson E. Legg imposed the sentence, which included six months' home detention after release from prison.
Murrell owned and managed 175 rental units in Baltimore, officials said, all built before lead paint was banned. A landlord since 1974, Murrell and his company have been issued more than 20 lead-paint violation notices or compliance orders over the years by city health or state environmental agencies, authorities said.
Federal and state officials and children's advocates welcomed the prison sentence in only the second federal criminal prosecution in Maryland for lead-paint violations.
"Cephus Murrell placed Baltimore children at risk of permanent injuries by violating federal law and ignoring repeated orders to comply with lead-paint regulations," Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said in a statement.
Ingesting even tiny amounts of lead-paint flakes or dust can cause lasting damage to children' learning and behavior. The city and state have struggled for decades to curb childhood lead poisoning, and though cases have declined greatly over the past 20 years, there were still more than 500 statewide in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.
"We have to have accountability and responsibility to make progress," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. She said the prosecution sends a message to landlords who are skirting the law.
A city Health Department inspector testified at Wednesday's sentencing that children had tested positive for lead poisoning in at least 11 of Murrell's properties during the past three decades. The landlord was jailed for a few days in 2010 by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, who found him in contempt for failing after years of government pressure to fix lead-paint hazards in his rental units.
Murrell pleaded guilty in federal court in July to three misdemeanor violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act. He had been charged with failing to notify his tenants of lead-paint hazards in their units, for conducting an abatement in one unit while children were present, potentially exposing them to lead dust, and for falsely certifying that abatement work was being done with proper supervision.
Paul Mark Sandler, Murrell's lawyer, asked the judge not to imprison his client, saying Murrell was well-intentioned but a sloppy businessman who got in over his head. The lawyer presented three character witnesses who described Murrell as generous and always willing to help out people, including inner-city children, the homeless and his low-income tenants.
Murrell, in a brief statement, said he was "brought up to help people," but apologized for his handling of lead-paint issues, saying, "I really should have exercised more supervision."
Sandler told the judge that Murrell was getting out of the landlord business, having turned over his properties to a trustee after filing for bankruptcy in March.
But state officials said it is not clear that Murrell is no longer involved with rental housing and that he has brought all of his units into compliance with lead-paint laws as promised.
Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said Murrell was required under his federal plea last year to get certificates showing that he had reduced lead-paint risks at about 60 properties he owned. To date, he's submitted only 11 certificates, she said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney P. Michael Cunningham urged Legg to give Murrell an 18-month prison sentence, arguing that whatever kindnesses Murrell has performed did not negate the harm he had done by exposing his tenants to lead-poisoning risks. He said Murrell had repeatedly neglected his responsibilities over the years.
"Mr. Murrell has a history of playing the shell game," the prosecutor said. "That hasn't changed."
The judge said he trimmed Murrell's prison sentence in recognition of his age and the testimonials about his good deeds. But Legg said prison time was warranted in light of the seriousness of lead poisoning and as a deterrent to other noncompliant landlords. The judge also ordered Murrell to get out of the rental housing business "in an orderly fashion."