Suspect in fatal crash escaped conviction in federal gun case

The man who police say was behind the wheel of a car that struck and killed the father of a Baltimore officer escaped conviction on federal gun charges last year — a rare exception, given federal prosecutors' reputation for closing cases.

Umar Burley, 39, the suspected driver, and passenger Brent Matthews, 36, were ordered held without bond Thursday on drug charges in connection with the crash. City prosecutors say both men, accused of fleeing a drug arrest, could face manslaughter charges once the investigation is complete.

Police say 86-year-old Elbert Davis was pulling forward in his Chevrolet Monte Carlo after waiting at a stop sign Wednesday morning when a 1999 Acura, with Burley behind the wheel, smashed it into a Northwest Baltimore home. Plainclothes detectives had tried to arrest the men when Burley sped off.

Both men have long arrest records, not uncommon for suspects charged in the city's violent crimes. But both had also been targeted by federal prosecutors, with gun charges against Burley plucked from the city court system in 2008 to be pursued at the federal level.

Burley was indicted in U.S. District Court on charges of having a Ruger 9-mm semi-automatic pistol with an obliterated serial number. The case was dismissed with prejudice by federal prosecutors last March.

Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor in Baltimore who now works as a defense lawyer, called it "exceedingly rare" for any U.S. Attorney's Office to dismiss a case with prejudice, which means the suspect cannot be charged with that crime again.

Federal prosecutors have great discretion in what cases they choose to pursue and virtually unlimited resources to investigate, White said. They often team up with local agencies to target offenders who have escaped serious punishment, and with federal penalties so tough, sometimes the threat of a federal prosecution can prompt a defendant to work out a guilty plea in a state court.

White also said juries in federal trials tend to be more conservative than those in city courts.

About 97 percent of all criminal cases end in convictions either after a trial or, as in most cases, with a negotiated guilty plea, he said..

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein acknowledged that it was "very rare that we have reason to reconsider a charging decision." He said records show that Burley's co-defendant, Michael Brown, accepted responsibility for the gun.

White said that was unusual, given that federal prosecutors rarely take on a case where there is a question about the defendant's guilt or their ability to secure a conviction.

"We charge more than 800 defendants in federal court each year and dismiss only a few," Rosenstein said in an e-mail response. "When we dismiss a case, it is usually because we determine that the defendant is actually innocent or that the admissible evidence does not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases it is because of new exculpatory evidence that comes to light, such as a new witness."

Matthews, also charged in Wednesday's incident, was known to federal prosecutors as well: He was sentenced to six years on gun charges in an unrelated case brought in 1997.

Meanwhile, city police were facing questions about whether they initiated a high-speed chase that may have contributed to the accident. The department prohibits such pursuits, which can lead to accidents that endanger the suspects, officers and innocent civilians.

But Joseph Caldwell, 65, whose home was struck, told reporters and crash investigators that a short period of time passed between when he heard the crash and when he looked out of his window and saw plainclothes officers chasing the suspects. Crash investigators said that Caldwell's account matched the officers' explanation that it took them time to catch up to the suspects.

According to charging documents, police say they were conducting surveillance at the Seton Park apartments in Howard Park, an "area regularly used as a meet location to distribute narcotics," when they saw Matthews climb into Burley's Acura, carrying cash in his left hand.

Detective Wayne E. Jenkins then pulled his unmarked vehicle in front of the Acura; a second detective, Sean Suiter, pulled behind it with his emergency lights on, according to charging documents. Jenkins and Detective Ryan Guinn approached with their badges displayed and ordered the men to show their hands, records show.

Burley maneuvered his Acura away from the scene without striking the police vehicles, and fled eastbound on Belle Avenue, according to court records. Burley was two or three blocks away when police regained sight of him.

The detectives said that when they came upon the crash scene, they observed the heavily damaged, smoking Acura resting against a fire hydrant that was gushing water. Davis' Monte Carlo had been pushed through hedges and onto Caldwell's front yard.

Davis and passenger Phosa Cain, 82, both of Owings Mills, had to be extricated from their car. Davis suffered internal injuries and multiple fractures to his ribs and legs, and later died at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, according to police reports. Cain was expected to survive.

Police said they recovered 32 grams of suspected heroin on the passenger side of the floor of Burley's vehicle, along with a digital scale.

The federal prosecutions against Burley came after previous charges in state courts. Burley's 2005 handgun arrest was dropped after evidence was suppressed. A guilty plea to drug possession in 2007 brought a five-year sentence, all but one year of which was suspended.

Federal prosecutors' documented prowess in securing meaningful gun convictions has promptedBaltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake to prod Rosenstein to take more cases from the city's courts. Billboards and television commercials boasts that federal prosecutors secured 15 years in prison for an offender for simply possessing ammunition.

"Federal prison for carrying bullets? Maryland Exile… It's a new day," the billboard reads.

Burley's co-defendant in the drug arrest-turned-fatal accident, Matthews, was one of those offenders. Sentenced to more than six years in federal prison on a 1998 gun charge, he was sent back for another seven months after violating his probation in 2007. Records show he had not picked up new charges since then.

Rosenstein said he was not surprised to hear both men had been re-arrested.

"We believe that most of the armed criminals prosecuted in federal court under the EXILE program represent an extreme danger to the community because they are likely to commit additional crimes," he said. "That is why we pursue them with federal charges whenever we believe they are guilty and the evidence is sufficient to convict them, and we try to send them away to federal prison for many years to enhance public safety and deter other criminals from carrying guns. That strategy seems to be working."

Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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