A co-founder of the Dead Man Incorporated prison gang pleaded guilty Wednesday to his role in the group's murder-for-hire and drug-dealing conspiracy — ensuring that the former Baltimorean serves a life sentence even as he promised followers in missives from behind bars that he would continue to defy the government.
The plea agreement will spare James Sweeney, 35, a possible death sentence in a separate case in which he is charged with killing a fellow inmate. The former Locust Point resident, who is being held in federal prison in Texas, admitted under the agreement that he was a leader of Dead Man Inc. and that he ordered "hits for hire in order to raise money and also to enable white prisoners to retaliate against black gangs" in Maryland, court records show.
Sweeney appeared in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, Texas, to formally enter his guilty plea in the Maryland case. He had pledged to followers in a letter earlier this month that he would rescind his plea agreement, claiming he had been misled by his Maryland attorney. He sent a copy of the letter to The Baltimore Sun and said it would be posted on Facebook pages and Internet sites.
"They consider me a threat to what they 'believe' to be their ultimate power, their authority. But … the true authority, the ultimate power, belongs to you, the people, not the establishment," he wrote in the letter.
The letter offers a glimpse into how Sweeney amassed a following that investigators say is thousands strong, with a presence in several states. Making frequent reference to "our people" and condemning authority, Sweeney said investigators didn't have evidence linking him to the group's alleged crimes and said they were trying to stop him from providing leadership to his followers.
Sweeney's Texas-based attorney, Katherine Scardino, declined to answer questions about Sweeney's apparent change of heart. But she noted that in exchange for his plea, federal prosecutors agreed to drop the Texas murder charge against Sweeney. Authorities allege that he and Harry Lee Napper, another Maryland man being held in Texas, killed another inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary in Beaumont in February 2008.
Prosecutors say the inmate was beaten and choked, and his body was then placed into bed and covered with a blanket. Paper covered the dead inmate's cell window, and later on someone accepted the victim's dinner meal to give the impression he was still alive.
In the Maryland case, Sweeney will receive a life sentence, the maximum possible sentence.
Sweeney, who was a Maryland state inmate but was sent to a federal facility in Texas years ago to break up the gang's activities, had been indicted along with 20 others in a conspiracy case against members of DMI, a prison gang started in Maryland prisons for white inmates that was able to direct criminal activities on the streets using contraband cell phones. The indictment alleges that the gang was behind several killings or attempted murders in the Baltimore region.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher T. Tortorice confirmed the authenticity of the letter sent by Sweeney, which he said prosecutors had seen and shown to the judge overseeing the case. Tortorice said that during the hearing Sweeney didn't "backtrack" on his plea agreement.
As Sweeney pleaded guilty, Perry Roark, who prosecutors say is known as DMI's "supreme commander," was set to appear Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Maryland after pleading guilty earlier this year. But his sentencing hearing was canceled without explanation. It's been re-set for Jan. 7.
Sweeney's letter presents conflicting positions. On one hand, he said he pleaded guilty to help the defense teams of loyal followers by saying they had no choice but to follow his direction. He refers to "Rock" in the letter; that's a nickname for Roark, according to federal prosecutors.
"By stating that those under me, encluding Rock, are not responsible for their actions because they had no other choice in the matter, they either obeyed my orders or else … they are now in a better position to escape the death penalty," Sweeney wrote. "I decided to help those worthy of such a sacrifice."
Sweeney also said he pleaded guilty with the hope that prison officials would then take him out of solitary confinement, where he said he had been held since January 2008.
Nevertheless, he said wanted to take it back, having determined that he was innocent and that the government was being dishonest about its evidence against him: "At no time throughout their three year investigation have they obtained any evidence, facts, that says I have been directly involved in such crimes."