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Murder-for-hire trial of Jose Morales sent to federal jury

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Federal prosecutors on Tuesday depicted the defendant in a complicated murder-for-hire case as an arch-schemer who had a witness against him killed and then sought ways to benefit from the killing years down the line.

But attorneys for Jose Morales, whose case is now before a jury, said in closing arguments that authorities were relying on unreliable witnesses and pointed to his longtime attorney as having a possible motive to order the killing.

Morales is accused of hiring a member of the Dead Man Inc. prison gang in March 2008 to murder Robert Long, an employee at Morales' construction business. Prosecutors say Long was cooperating with police against his boss in a series of theft cases in which they were both charged.

Over the years, Morales leaked information about the murder to authorities in hopes they might go easy on him in subsequent cases — first telling agents in Texas about the DMI connection when he was arrested there in August 2008, and later identifying the gunman to a prison official, according to prosecutors.

He even handed other people details so that they, too, might dangle them before federal agents to try to shorten their sentences, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson said Morales' approach to Long's death was simple: "How can I, Jose Morales, capitalize off the death of my friend?"

Federal officials have said the case is particularly important to them because it involves the murder of a witness, and a Baltimore Police Department investigation of Long's murder ended with a wrongful conviction in state court of a man who was later freed.

U.S. authorities slowly figured out what they believe to be the truth of the case, undoing the state verdict and bringing charges against Morales last year.

"This is where truth telling is done," Wilkinson told the jury. "This is not a place in the United States where people who agree to be witnesses get executed."

In a day of dense arguments, the two sides jostled over the meaning of the evidence, which consisted of more than 30 witnesses and 150 exhibits.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke said it was clear that Morales had paid for the murder of Long, pointing to a number of witnesses who testified that Morales had shared aspects of the story with them.

But Jonathan Zucker, one of Morales' lawyers, said all the key witnesses in the case stood to gain lesser sentences for criminal charges they faced for helping to convict his client. The original theft charges against Morales were eventually dropped.

"The only way out is to put somebody else in," Zucker said. "Could you describe a system more likely to lead to fabricated, falsified accusations than that?"

He argued instead that one of those witnesses — Morales' long-time attorney Stanley Needleman, who testified under the terms of a plea agreement — might have had a motive to have Long killed in order to protect himself.

In an interview, Needleman said Morales had once advanced that idea himself and then admitted it was a lie.

Despite the battle over whether Morales was the one to order the murder, both sides generally agreed that Long spent the night of Easter Sunday 2008 getting high with the gunman and one other person.

The trio used cocaine all night and when their supply was depleted the next morning, the shooter walked with Long down a path into a park in Southwest Baltimore, according to the lawyers' summaries of the evidence at the trial. The gunman shot twice, the .25-caliber bullets piercing Long's skull in the back of the head and through one eye.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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