8 Baltimore trials to watch in 2018

Several high-profile cases are slated to play out in Baltimore courtrooms in 2018, from the trial scheduled for January of three officers charged in the Baltimore Gun Trace Task Force police corruption case to the December trial of an alleged North Baltimore drug crew involved in the death of 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott.

Most of the biggest cases are slated to play out in U.S. District Court, where federal prosecutors brought a number of sweeping cases before U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein left for Washington to become deputy attorney general. In addition to the gun unit case and the McKenzie Elliott case, those cases include the corruption trial of a sitting state senator from Baltimore and the trial of a young Baltimore man charged with killing six people.

The Circuit Court cases also include a retrial of a man convicted 41 years ago in what became known as the “Good Friday Shootings,” which injured six Baltimore police officers, killing one. A court ruling reversed the jury verdict, and John Earl Williams is set for another trial.

Here’s a look at what to expect (all dates are tentative; cases could be postponed, defendants could enter guilty pleas, or prosecutors could drop the cases):

Retrial, 40 years later, of man convicted of shooting 6 Baltimore police officers

Date: Jan. 8

John Earl Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the 1970s of shooting six Baltimore Police officers, killing one, during a 40-minute barrage that became known as the “Good Friday Shooting.” Forty-one years later, his conviction was vacated and he was granted a new trial as a result of the Unger ruling of 2012.

In the ruling, Maryland’s highest court questioned the fairness of jury instructions in trials before 1980. The ruling brought sweeping consequences to decades-old murder cases. Baltimore prosecutors have struck Unger deals with more than 100 prisoners, saying it's difficult to retry old cases after memories fade, evidence went missing, and witnesses have died.

Williams allegedly wanted to impress his ex-girlfriend when he called Baltimore police to state his plans for Good Friday in 1976. The 18-year-old loaded a rifle with armor-piercing bullets, took aim from the window of his Hollins Market rowhouse, and opened fire on the streets below.

Williams, 60, doesn’t dispute his involvement and has always expressed “extreme remorse,” said his current attorney, Natalie Finegar. “He is only hoping for the opportunity to have a little bit of life outside of the department of corrections,” Finegar said. “He’s served close to 42 years, with a model record of stellar behavior.”

The Gun Trace Task Force case

Date: Jan. 22

Three officers charged with racketeering in this case are on track to contest the charges in U.S. District Court. The case has rocked the city: an entire elite unit, charged with robbing people, reselling drugs and guns, filing false paperwork in court and racking up tens of thousands of dollars in false overtime. The alleged crimes also occurred while a federal civil rights investigation of the Police Department was underway. In November, the case collided with the killing of homicide Detective Sean Suiter, who police revealed was set to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the case one day after his death.

Though federal prosecutors laid out a slew of allegations against the gun unit officers in multiple indictments, and two detectives who have pleaded guilty took the stand in a federal drug trial and gave some insight into the unit’s crimes, a trial promises to pull back the covers on the case. Former Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and former detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor are charged with racketeering conspiracy, and appear set to argue at least in part that stealing from citizens during police business is theft, not robbery.

Also unresolved is an accounting of how the unit was put together and able to operate without proper oversight. The Baltimore Sun has reported on several prior red flags involving officers in the unit, but police have largely shrugged off questions and elected officials appear content with that response.

Third trial in the killing of Phylicia Barnes

Date: March 5

At his first trial, Michael Maurice Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of the 16-year-old from North Carolina, and then was acquitted of all charges by a judge at a second trial. Now, after intervention from the state’s highest court, a third trial looms. Barnes vanished around Christmas 2010 while visiting her older half-sisters, and her body was found months later floating in the Susquehanna River. Johnson, the ex-boyfriend of Barnes’ older sister and the last person to see her alive, was charged in April 2012, with police and prosecutors theorizing that he had strangled her and put her body into a storage container he was seen struggling to move.

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder at his first trial, a case that included the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed Johnson told him about the crime. That conviction was overturned prior to sentencing, with Circuit Judge Alfred Nance ruling prosecutors had withheld information about the informant.

At a second trial, prosecutors mistakenly played an audio tape that jurors were not supposed to hear, and Judge John Addison Howard declared a mistrial. He then reversed his own ruling and granted an acquittal, saying prosecutors lacked evidence to tie Johnson to the crime. The state’s highest court ruled that Howard was “totally without authority” to acquit Johnson after declaring the mistrial.

The prosecutors who tried the first two cases appear to be out; a new group of three prosecutors is now listed as the trial team tasked with winning a conviction.

Greenmount Avenue firebombing case

Date: March 26

Authorities named Antonio T. Wright their “Public Enemy No. 1” after he allegedly threw two Molotov cocktails into a home in the 1200 block of Greenmount Ave.

Wright proclaimed his innocence during a surrender that was live-streamed on Facebook by a woman who identified herself as his wife. "I did not commit this crime," Wright said in the video as he was being handcuffed. "I won't allow them to bring me in like an animal to portray what y'all saying on TV. ... Y'all judged me before y'all even knew anything. Y'all convicted me off assumption. And I didn't do it."

Shi-heem Sholto, 19, and Tyrone James, 17, died in the blaze, and a woman was critically injured after jumping from a third-story window. A 4-year-old girl was among those injured.

The firebombing struck an especially emotional chord in the city, where a similar, targeted firebombing of a family's home in East Baltimore in 2002 killed Angela Dawson, her husband, Carnell, and their five children.

The corruption trial of state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks

Date: April 16

Oaks’ trial is set to begin after he finishes serving out his 31st General Assembly legislative session. Oaks is accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for state business as part of a wide FBI corruption probe, the scope of which has not yet been revealed.

Oaks faced additional charges after federal prosecutors said he became an FBI cooperator — prior to his indictment — and tipped off the target of an investigation. He has pleaded not guilty.

Oaks lost his seat in the House of Delegates in 1989 after being convicted of theft and misconduct in office for stealing thousands of dollars from his campaign account. But he won re-election a few years later, and in February was appointed to the Senate to take the place of Lisa Gladden, who stepped down for health reasons.

The FBI said in unsealed documents last month that Oaks had been under investigation since 2014 “based on historical reporting that Oaks was associated with individuals who were involved in illegal activities, and that Oaks had inappropriately accepted money and other things of value from businesspersons and lobbyists in his capacity as a state delegate.”

The third trial for Keith Davis Jr.

Date: April 19

As in the Michael Johnson case, Davis was convicted on the strength of a jailhouse informant whose credibility came into question. Like Johnson, Davis is now headed for a third trial.

Davis is accused of killing Pimlico security guard Kevin Jones as Jones walked to work outside the racetrack. Davis was arrested that day after being shot by police in a separate incident, with police saying he ran from a robbery and pointed a gun at them. Later, authorities said that gun was the same one used to kill Jones.

Davis says he is innocent, and his cause has been taken up by many city activists, who say he was wrongly being pursued and who have confronted State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby at various public events. Mosby’s office tweeted “Victory” after Davis was convicted at his second trial. Davis’ first trial ended with a hung jury, and at the second trial, prosecutors brought forward an inmate who claimed Davis confessed to him. Judge Lynn Stewart Mays reversed the conviction, saying jurors received a “sanitized” version of the inmate’s criminal record.

City’s ‘No. 1 Trigger-Puller’ goes on trial for six killings

Date: Sept. 17

Montana Barronette, alleged to be a member of a Black Guerrilla Family subset known as "Trained to Go," is accused of committing at least six killings between July 2015 and May 2016.

Barronette has been locked up since August, when he was charged in a 2014 killing. Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called him the city's "No. 1 trigger-puller," putting him at the top of a list of more than 200 police targets. "Barronette is very good at his craft. His craft is killing," Davis has said.

Federal authorities accuse Barronette of committing a shooting that killed Lamont Randall, Gerald Thompson and Jacqueline Parker on July 5, 2015; killing David Moore, 24, on Nov. 8, 2015; killing Markee Brown, 19, on April 16, 2016, and Antonio Addison, 22, on May 25, 2016. He is also accused of intimidating a witness who was cooperating with law enforcement, and selling heroin and cocaine.

Alleged Waverly drug crew, whose member is accused of killing 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott

Date: Dec. 24

McKenzie Elliott was killed by a stray bullet in August 2014.

Terrell Plummer, 28, was charged with use of a firearm resulting in death for allegedly firing at rivals and striking McKenzie, who was playing on her porch in the Waverly neighborhood. Six other members of Plummer's North Baltimore gang, Old York Money Gang, were also charged with drug-related offenses.

The day before McKenzie was shot, authorities say, Plummer, Davonte Rich and others jumped three people who had entered their territory, stabbing one of them. The victims returned, and Plummer fired shots at their vehicle. One person was struck in the head but survived.

Plummer’s attorneys have been challenging the evidence provided thus far, but say they have yet to learn the identities of the informants who say he was the shooter.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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