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Baltimore Crime Beat

Bernstein: Don't blame prosecutors for drug dealer's suspended sentence

Responding to criticism, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said prosecutors are often in favor of tougher penalties than those handed down by city judges, who have the final say. 

Bernstein's comment came after a "court watcher" from North Baltimore, Stephen Gewirtz, sent an e-mail blast to residents describing sentencing of a 54-year-old man named Lonnie Butler, who pleaded guilty Monday to selling heroin in Better Waverly. He received a sentence of seven years, but Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams suspended all but two years and gave Butler credit for time served. 

Resident Andrew Timleck sent a reply to the e-mail recipient criticizing the sentence, saying Butler had a lengthy record of charges stretching back 22 years.

"And now, caught with a ton of heroin, WHILE ON PROBATION, and not even TWO WEEKS AFTER he was just arrested for [possession] he's caught manufacture and intent to distribute. AND THIS is his sentence?" Timleck wrote. "So he's got 1.5 years and he's back to do it again. Awesome work on the judiciary and State's Attorney's side."

Bernstein responded saying he shared Timleck's frustration, but said that the assistant state's attorney assigned to the case - listed in court records as Katie O'Hara - sought a full seven-year sentence. 

While attorneys work out plea agreements, prosecutors can only make recommendations to judges, who have the final say.

"Notwithstanding our recommendation, the Court advised the defendant that if he pled guilty, the Court would suspend all but two years of the sentence, which is what happened," Bernstein wrote. "In this regard, the only 'plea bargain' was an agreement that the defendant would plead guilty. We did not agree to the sentence imposed, and indeed, made it quite clear on the record that our recommendation was seven years."

Bernstein said prosecutors were disappointed but "must respect his decision and continue to try and convince judges in future cases like this one that a more severe sentence is warranted." 

Williams could not be immediately reached for comment.

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