A judge’s decision on whether Baltimore prosecutors are bound by the terms of a former assistant state’s attorney’s proposal to release a man from prison could be issued within weeks.
John Warren, who is serving a life sentence for a 2000 murder conviction, appeared in court Wednesday as his attorney made the case that prosecutors should not be able to back out of the agreement she said was reached late last year that would have resulted in a modified sentence and, potentially, Warren’s freedom.
Nancy Forster, Warren’s attorney, called it a matter of “fair play, equity and fundamental fairness” that the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office abide by the former administration’s offer, which was laid out in a pleading but had not been approved by the court.
Assistant State’s Attorney Richard Boucher, meanwhile, argued it was not an “agreement” but a “proposed resolution” — meaning the incoming administration of State’s Attorney Ivan Bates should not be prevented from changing its position on the case. He didn’t offer specifics as to why the office sought to make the change.
The two sides did not make arguments about Warren’s underlying motion to reopen the case post-conviction.
Circuit Judge Charles Blomquist said he would issue a ruling within two weeks, after giving Forster a chance to respond in writing to prosecutors’ Monday filing. Warren is due to appear in court next on July 26.
Blomquist, addressing Warren, said he didn’t mean to treat him like “a ping pong ball” in scheduling hearings and delaying a ruling on the issue.
“Sometimes, justice moves slowly,” Blomquist said.
[ Baltimore prosecutors want to back out of deal to release man from prison. Can they? ]
Warren, now 41, was convicted in 2000 for the 1998 killing of his best friend, Haywood Williams. Initially considered a witness, Warren became a suspect, in part because his description of the shooting conflicted with some evidence and witness accounts, according to prosecutors. Police said Williams, who used a wheelchair due to a previous shooting, was shot in the head six times.
Williams’ aunt, Sheila Ross, said this week she believed Warren should serve his full sentence. He was sentenced to life plus 20 years, for murder and handgun offenses. He was 17 years old at the time of Williams’ killing.
Warren has maintained his innocence and argued the state improperly withheld evidence prior to trial about other potential suspects and people with motive to kill Williams.
In response to his November motion, the then-chief of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s Sentencing Review Unit, Becky Feldman, wrote that if any of his claims were successful, Warren would be entitled to a new trial.
Instead, she proposed a reduced sentence that could have meant Warren’s imminent release, in exchange for him withdrawing the claims in his motion and foregoing filing future post-conviction motions.
Arguments in court Wednesday parsed Feldman’s language: Boucher emphasized that Feldman wrote that she would “propose the following resolution” before describing the terms, contending she would have used other language if it were a binding agreement. Forster, in response, said the proposal was to a judge, who would need to sign off, and that she and Feldman had gone back and forth for months over their arrangement.
Blomquist pointed to other parts of Feldman’s pleading, including that Warren “agrees” to withdraw claims, that the “agreement would not bar” him from pursuing future innocence claims and that “in exchange,” Feldman proposed a “binding sentence.”
Boucher maintained, in response: “There was never an agreement.”
He added there was no witness or exhibits as evidence that the other side had accepted Feldman’s proposal — to which Forster replied she would “call myself as a witness.”
Feldman declined to comment on the case this week.
In a filing Monday, Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, wrote that prosecutors weren’t bound by Feldman’s proposal because there was no evidence of bad faith and it was not a bargained agreement. She added that the state had reviewed records and determined the “strength of inculpating evidence outweighs the exculpating evidence.” She also wrote that the Williams family told prosecutors in late February they “oppose relief.”
In an interview Wednesday, State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said that “when there are individuals that are innocent, we will do everything we can to fix that.”
But in Warren’s case, he said he already had a “bite at the apple” for a modified sentence under the Juvenile Restoration Act, and already had been investigated for potential factual innocence under former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s administration, which denied Warren’s claim. (Neither of these points came up in Wednesday’s court hearing.)
“We still have to follow the rules, and we cannot try to make the ends justify the means,” Bates said.
Warren’s Juvenile Restoration Act motion sought a modified sentence, which was granted in part by Judge Emanuel Brown earlier this year. Instead of a sentence of life plus 20 years for murder and handgun convictions, Warren would now be sentenced to life, with a concurrent 20-year sentence for his handgun conviction.
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In an interview, Deputy State’s Attorney Tom Donnelly said prosecutors viewed that venue as the appropriate time to revisit his sentence. He also noted that Warren could file another motion for modification of sentence in response.
Calling the motion to reopen Warren’s case post-conviction, under consideration by Blomquist, a “tool that is designed to check the integrity of a conviction,” Donnelly said it should not be used as “an additional tool for simply modifying someone’s sentence.”
The review of Warren’s case during Mosby’s tenure was conducted by the Conviction Integrity Unit. In a 2021 letter, provided by Forster, Lipscomb wrote that the unit would not recommend the court “disturb the jury’s findings.”
“It is our position that the available evidence does not support a determination of factual innocence,” Lipscomb wrote.
The two-page letter briefly described the unit’s investigation, detailing that it was guided by whether there was a mistake in determining Warren committed the murder, rather than just being at the scene. It doesn’t contain much detail on the steps the unit took, but mentions the exploration of an alternative motive and other interviews or affidavits it considered.
Warren told The Baltimore Sun in a recent video interview from his Cumberland prison that he was devastated by prosecutors’ move to backtrack from Feldman’s offer.
“They got my family’s hopes high, my friends’ hopes high,” Warren said. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve cried, to be honest with you.”