If you want to see just how slowly the wheels of justice can turn in a Baltimore drug case, look no further than the long-delayed trial of a father-and-son pair of defendants named Anthony Thomas Hall Jr. and Sr.
Police filed charges against them at the beginning of May 1994, a month before O. J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. When the Halls came to court Thursday, it was their ninth scheduled trial date -- long after the football star had been tried and acquitted and had released his explanatory video.
The Halls' case isn't particularly sensational; at issue is 22 grams rock cocaine, found in the Pen Lucy house where they were living. But it illustrates what can happen in a drug war with a flood of defendants, handled by a finite cadre of lawyers and judges who must juggle the demands of law and personal schedules to come up with timely justice.
"What's going on with our legal system?" asked Rosemary McLean, who lives in the 500 block of Wyanoke Ave., as the Halls did when they were charged. "I just thought by now they would have had their trial and dealt out whatever punishment they were going to get."
Such delays mean witnesses and suspects must keep coming to court, and neighbors are left wondering why the system works so slowly.
Last year, as the number of drug defendants surged to 62 percent of all Baltimore Circuit Court felony defendants, Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan designated a fourth court to handle drug cases only. That reduced some delays, as did Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's decision to increase the amount of drugs that qualifies suspects for felony charges.
But the cases still stack up. Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr., who is in charge of the court's criminal docket, acknowledged that two or three postponements are not unusual, though he said the court is handling the volume well. "This is not a typical case," he said of the Hall matter, referring to the high number of postponements.
Maryland law calls for defendants to be tried within 180 days of their arraignment or their attorney's notification to the court that he or she will represent the defendants. But if the person charged waives that right -- which happens frequently -- delays can continue indefinitely if a judge finds good cause for them.
But "good cause" can cover a wide range of circumstances, from a defense attorney's busy trial schedule to a prosecutor's vacation or maternity leave.
The Halls became targets when a member of the community, fed up with what appeared to be regular drug dealing at the Wyanoke Avenue house, gave officers a description of people believed to be involved, court documents show. On April 30, 1994, officers serving a search warrant at the house found the cocaine and a safe with $3,900. A note discovered by police said: "Apple, get good use out of them."
Police filed charges against the Halls, accusing them of possession with intent to distribute and conspiracy. Drug charges also were filed against Kim Lenell Bryant, who had been in the house at the time.
Since then, infants have become toddlers and the seasons have changed seven times. And the Hall charges still are pending.
The first trial date, Nov. 16, 1994, was postponed because one of the defense attorneys was in another court. The Halls and Ms. Bryant waived their rights to a trial within six months of arraignment. On Feb. 3, 1995, the assistant state's attorney was unavailable: "ASA has nonrefundable tickets out of state," said the postponement form.
On May 8, a defense attorney's illness was to blame, according to court computer records. The next time, June 28, the postponement form said the prosecutor was on maternity leave and needed to do further investigation. July 19, no judge was available. Oct. 30 wasn't a good date for a "miscellaneous" reason, the computer said.
On Jan. 11, the case went to Judge David B. Mitchell. Ms. Bryant, who had been out on bail, entered an Alford plea -- in which she did not admit guilt but acknowledged she could have been found guilty at trial. She got a suspended sentence and probation.
At that hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Turner said she would drop the charges against Anthony Hall Sr. if he testified against his son and verified that the son's nickname was "Apple." The elder Mr. Hall agreed.
But the case against his son could not go forward. Plea discussions were fruitless. The Blizzard of 1996 that week complicated matters further. The case was postponed again. And because there has been no trial in which Mr. Hall Sr. could testify to hold up his end of his deal, his case remains officially active as well.
William Monfried, Mr. Hall Jr.'s attorney, was defending another client in a murder trial when the case came up again Feb. 5.
"I think this is close to the eighth time he has had to come to court," Assistant Public Defender Richard Orman, who represents Mr. Hall Sr., told Judge Thomas E. Noel that day. "It's incredible."
Judge Noel said he would have to shut down other cases to take the Halls' case any time that week. So they went where a case goes every time a postponement is sought -- to administrative court. Judge John C. Themelis scheduled the case for last Thursday.
The Wyanoke Avenue house is boarded up and vacant. But neighbors were outraged to learn the cases had been delayed so long. "I don't think they should be allowed," neighbor Jennifer Minke said of the postponements.
Anthony Hall Jr. is no stranger to the city's justice system. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1991, and had 10 drug-related charges against him shelved later that year. In January 1995 -- while awaiting trial in the current case -- Mr. Hall Jr. picked up more drug charges. His bail was revoked, and he went back to jail.
Mr. Monfried says his client has not pleaded guilty in the Wyanoke Avenue case because police have the wrong man. "My guy 150,000 percent says he's not Apple," he said. "I've been trying to get this case to court. Unfortunately, I'm either in trial or the state's attorney is in trial or the judge is busy."
Deputy State's Attorney Haven Kodeck said his office's heavy ++ caseload means maternity leaves and vacations are bound to cause postponements at times. He said the office tries to schedule trials so they will not conflict with prosecutors' personal schedules, but that isn't always possible because there are so many cases.
And he said a prosecutor handling a case should be able to
handle it for the duration, as defense attorneys do -- not have to turn it over to somebody else in the unit. "The public should get a fair shake also," he said.
Judge McCurdy said drug defendants are overbooked in courts because many end up pleading guilty. If they were not scheduled that way, he said, courts would sit idle and cases would be less likely to conclude quickly. Lawyers can go on a "move list" that would give them the next available court, but some don't choose that option because it requires them, their clients and witnesses to be ready at any time.
What happened when the Halls' case went to court Thursday?
Judge Noel, who was supposed to have the case again, was absent because of a death in his family. But Judge McCurdy -- who had been questioned about the case by a reporter -- called the Halls first during his administrative session and found an available judge to take the case in the afternoon.
Then Mr. Monfried asked that judge, Robert I. H. Hammerman, to continue the case because Mr. Monfried was getting married the next day.
L Judge Hammerman agreed. Jury selection is to begin tomorrow.
Anatomy of a drug case
The rise in the number of drug arrests in Baltimore has meant delays in the judicial system. For Anthony Thomas Hall Jr. (right) and Sr., it's been nearly two years since they were charged with intent to distribute and conspiracy, and Kim Lenell Bryant was charged. According to court records, here's what has happened since:
April 30: Officers discover cocaine and cash at a Wyanoke Avenue house.
Early May: The Halls and Bryant are charged.
Nov. 16: First trial date postponed; defense attorney in another court.
Feb. 3: Trial postponed; assistant state's attorney unavailable.
May 8: Trial post-poned; defense attorney ill.
July 19: Trial post-poned; judge unavailable.
Oct. 30: Trial postponed; 'miscellaneous' reason cited.
Jan. 11: Case goes to Judge David B. Mitchell; Bryant enters Alford plea, gets suspended sentence, probation. Blizzard delays case.
Feb. 5: Trial postponed; defense attorney defending another client.
Tomorrow: Jury selection to begin.