After years of watching Umar Burley beat various gun and drug charges, prosecutors have won a conviction in U.S. District Court with a 15-year prison term against the Baltimore drug dealer — part of a one-two-punch strategy between state and federal officials.
But they could have gone for more, one local attorney said, raising questions about whether the "career offender" — who allegedly killed a police officer's father in a car crash last year — actually got off easy.
"What I would expect to see, if this guy were as big of a head as he sounds, is a … plea to a charge with a maximum penalty of life," said Andrew White, a former federal prosecutor who is now in private practice. He reviewed Burley's plea agreement at The Baltimore Sun's request.
It's a strange twist in a strange case.
Burley, 40, has been charged with more than a dozen crimes in Baltimore Circuit Court, though he's been convicted only a few times for drugs, according to online court records, and he's never received a significant sentence.
He even beat federal gun charges in 2009, a rare failure for the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.
That likely made him a law enforcement target, lawyers said. And it meant he was free April 28, 2010, and in a position, court documents say, to slam his Acura into a Monte Carlo driven by Elbert Davis, the elderly father of a Baltimore officer. Authorities said Burley had been fleeing police, who later found a small amount of heroin in his car.
State and federal prosecutors split the charges from the incident, with the Baltimore state's attorney's office filing a manslaughter case, while the federal authorities went after the drugs in U.S. District Court, where the penalties would be higher against a career offender.
"If the U.S. attorneys are willing to take a bite at you once and they don't get it, and you make yourself available for a second bite, they'll definitely take it," White said. "Especially so if you're involved in a situation where you kill the father of a police officer."
Burley was set for trial in the federal case next month, but a deal was struck last week and sealed Friday, when Burley pleaded guilty to possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
He's expected to receive a 15-year sentence at his sentencing Sept. 16 — roughly a month after his manslaughter trial is supposed to begin — according to a plea agreement filed Monday.
Burley appears to have an incentive to wrap up the state case quickly, particularly if he pleads guilty to manslaughter. If he's sentenced first by the state court, the federal sentence "will run concurrently," the agreement states.
In that situation, it would appear that both the federal and state and prosecutors would have added significant convictions to Burley's record, while he would have only had to serve one prison term.
Burley's federal attorney declined to comment on the case, as did state prosecutors. His state public defender did not return a message, nor did Maryland's U.S. attorney.
Steven Levin, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said it's hard to judge a plea agreement without some context. "There are all these factors we don't know about," Levin said, including whether Burley is cooperating with prosecutors.
"It's impossible to say this isn't the best plea deal," Levin said, adding that for the amount of drugs found — fewer than 30 grams — "180 months is a lot of time."