Federal prosecutors took over the witness-intimidation case yesterdayagainst five men accused of firebombing the home of a North Baltimorecommunity leader last month, a move that could increase the minimum penaltiesimposed on the defendants if they are convicted.
"Witness intimidation is a serious offense which threatens the integrity ofour criminal justice system," Allen F. Loucks, the interim U.S. attorney forMaryland, said in a written statement yesterday. "We are using all availableresources to combat this problem in Baltimore, including seeking the stiffestpenalties possible."
The six-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury yesterdayagainst Andre Wilkins, 31, of Randallstown, and Jackie Brewington, 18, RichardM. Royal, 20, Isaac Smith, 25, and Nakie Harris, 29, all of Baltimore, comesas authorities continue to wrestle with witness intimidation in the city, achronic problem that law enforcement says remains a serious obstacle toprosecuting many criminal cases.
A sixth person arrested in the Jan. 15 firebombing in the Harwoodneighborhood, Antonio Newsome, was not named in the federal indictment.Although Newsome was initially identified as 18 years old, he may be ajuvenile, making his prosecution in federal court more difficult, officialssaid. It was unclear last night how Newsome's case will be handled.
The five suspects facing federal charges remain in state custody, and nodate for their first appearance in federal court has been set, a spokeswomanfor the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore said.
At least one defense attorney involved in the case criticized the decisionto take the case into federal court.
"It's going to be a battleground," said Edward Smith Jr., Brewington'sattorney. "In modern times, everyone wants to take cases federal."
The firebombing victim, Harwood Community Association president EdnaMcAbier, has not returned to her North Lorraine Avenue home. Police continueto post marked squad cars at the front and rear of her rowhouse.
According to court records, McAbier said her tires were slashed, her carwas vandalized and bricks were thrown at her home's steps in the months beforethe firebombing. At McAbier's home, police and fire investigators foundevidence of five Molotov cocktails - brown beer bottles filled with flammablefluid and with cloth wicks.
In state court, the six men were charged with 13 counts each, includingattempted murder, arson and related felonies, in the attack.
In the federal indictment yesterday, five of them were charged with witnesstampering, conspiracy to commit witness tampering and use of a firearm in thecommission of a crime.
The penalties could be severe. Under the criminal count of witnesstampering alone, the mandatory minimum penalty is 30 years in prison. Themaximum sentence for the charge is life in prison.
"I'm thankful that this has been carried through and that we're seeingthese indictments, because it's in the best interest of the community to havethese thugs off the street," said David Wright, president of the CharlesVillage Community Benefits District, which includes Harwood. "I'm sad thatanother five men in Baltimore are in this situation, but this ... deservesstrong and resolute action."
City prosecutors plan to drop their charges against the five men named inlieu of the federal indictment, said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for thestate's attorney in Baltimore.
In another case, the local U.S. attorney's office successfully prosecutedDarrell Brooks, who set a 2002 fire that killed Angela Dawson, her husband andfive of her children. The fire had been set because the Dawsons frequentlycalled police about drug activity in their East Baltimore neighborhood. Brookswas sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.