Lawyers for BGF get first chance to challenge jail case

In the large, rarely used ceremonial courtroom of Baltimore's federal court on Wednesday, a few defendants and their lawyers challenged prosecutors who say they helped the Black Guerrilla Family gang take over the city jail.

Many of the cases against their alleged co-conspirators have already been resolved — 44 people were charged in a pair of indictments last year. Most have pleaded guilty to their part in the racketeering conspiracy or indicated in writing to the court that they intend to so.

When charges in the case were first made public in spring 2013 — with detailed allegations of drug smuggling, small fortunes electronically laundered and amorous encounters between inmates and jail officers — they touched off a scandal.

Lawmakers and corrections officials moved to boost security at the Baltimore City Detention Center, installing a system to cut off contraband cellphones used to arrange drug smuggling, and changing entrance security procedures.

And in court, the BGF leader at the jail, Tavon White, quickly admitted his part in the conspiracy and the other defendants have followed.

Now with this week's hearings, which are scheduled to run for three days, the legal proceedings are nearing their end.

On Wednesday morning, Derius Duncan became the latest gang member to plead guilty. He admitted to directing the smuggling of contraband, including cellphones, tobacco and drugs, according to his plea agreement.

He worked with corrupt corrections officers and, according to the indictment, had one of them stand guard outside a closet so he could have sex with another officer.

The hearings are being held so eight remaining defendants have a chance to raise arguments, such as objections to evidence, ahead of a trial scheduled to begin in November.

While a colleague dispatched Duncan in a smaller courtroom upstairs, Robert Harding, the other prosecutor on the case, sat alone at the trial table in the ceremonial courtroom. On the other side of the room sat a group of defense attorneys. In the movie-theater style seats in the back of the court room, about a dozen spectators watched.

Judge Ellen L. Hollander arrived, presided between two oversized flags on a bench with enough seats for twenty judges.

There were no legal fireworks during the first hours of the hearing. Hollander upheld the legality of a search on one defendant's home, and declined to find fault with the way prosecutors had spelled out the charges in their indictment.

Some of the discussions gave an indication of how the case will be argued at trial. Defense attorney Anthony D. Martin previewed an argument he anticipates making on behalf of his client, Russell Carrington.

It's a simple one: Carrington, who was an inmate at the detention center, denies being a member of the Black Guerrilla Family. And, Martin said, just because he was locked up with people who were doesn't make it so.

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