To the dismay of prosecutors, a man considered to be one of the worst drug lords in Baltimore history was freed yesterday of what had been a 22-year sentence for a gun crime and vowed as he walked away from the city's federal courthouse to dedicate his life to serving God.
Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, 61, served nearly four years on a handgun possession conviction before his attorney successfully argued that Williams did not meet the technical requirements of the federal career criminal laws that prosecutors had used to send him to prison for what could have been the rest of his life.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis resentenced Williams yesterday to time served, a ruling that allowed the man whom prosecutors have portrayed as revolutionizing Baltimore's heroin trade in the 1960s and 1970s to leave the courtroom a free man, carrying his few possessions from jail in a brown paper bag.
"I'm going to go back to being the kind of person that God wants me to be," Williams said, acknowledging in a brief interview his one-time unrivaled drug operation but insisting that he is returning to the community as a humbled and deeply religious man.
"Sometime in my 50s, I became aware there was a God in charge, and not a Melvin," he said.
In releasing Williams over the objection of prosecutors, Garbis said that the 22-year sentence he handed down in March 2000 was "grossly excessive." The judge also said he believed the testimony offered three years ago by community leaders who said Williams had been a positive force in helping steer young Baltimore men away from drugs and crime.
"Mr. Williams will never be mistaken for an angel, a saint or an unblemished person," the judge said in court. "I just think there's an occasion where what's right is right, and I don't think the community has the slightest bit of reason to be concerned here."
"I respectfully disagree," responded Assistant U.S. Attorney James G. Warwick, who argued that Williams' sentence still should reflect his long history of criminal activity and include several more years behind bars. Williams had been jailed since his arrest in the case in March 1999.
"Mr. Williams is a career criminal in every practical, common-sense application of the term," a visibly frustrated Warwick said in court. "Mr. Williams has been a notorious criminal in the city of Baltimore for most of his adult life. The times he was not committing crimes on the streets, he was incarcerated. And, unfortunately, he has not been incarcerated enough."
Career criminal law
Three years ago, prosecutors used the federal government's Armed Career Criminal statute to win the two-decade, no-parole prison term for Williams, then 58. The law provides stiff sentences for criminals with multiple convictions for drug trafficking or felony crimes of violence.
In Williams' case, authorities pointed to three prior convictions: a 1967 drug and gun case in state court in Baltimore; a 1975 conviction in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for conspiracy to distribute heroin; and a 1985 conviction in federal court in Virginia for cocaine distribution.
Federal prosecutors under then-U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia had held up the gun sentence for Williams - known for presiding over a sophisticated heroin ring that employed as many as 200 street-level dealers in the 1970s - as proof of the impact U.S. authorities could have on gun violence in Baltimore.
But Garbis agreed yesterday with defense attorney Michael E. Marr that neither the 1967 case nor the 1975 conviction and prison sentence were properly applied against Williams at his sentencing in the handgun possession case.
Marr described his client as an aging man who was operated on recently for prostate cancer.
"I don't think he's the beast that he's made out to be," Marr said.
A federal jury in Baltimore convicted Williams in October 1999 after hearing that he had used a 9 mm handgun and a small stun gun to beat a man on a West Baltimore street in March 1999 during a dispute over a $500 debt on a bail bond policy Williams had written. Police found the gun stashed in a Lincoln Navigator double-parked near where the beating occurred at Hollins and Calhoun Streets, testimony showed.
Williams' conviction came after a second trial for the same incident. A first trial, in September 1999, ended in a mistrial after one juror refused to find Williams guilty. During that trial, such well-known Baltimore figures as then-state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV testified on Williams' behalf.
Testifying in his own defense, Williams denied that anything had happened. The victim, Tracy "Malik" Thomas, also said that nothing had happened, but two other witnesses testified that Thomas had told them that "Melvin" had paid him to lie to the grand jury by denying that he had been assaulted and saying that he had hurt himself in a fall, according to court records.
At the time of the beating, Williams had been on parole for less than three years from a 24-year prison sentence handed down after his 1985 conviction. Although the federal prison system has since abolished parole, Williams still could face a parole revocation hearing for his arrest in the beating case.
After leaving court yesterday, Williams said he was prepared to face whatever punishment the federal parole commission hands down, but said he is confident that he will not be returned to prison.
When he left court, he was headed to his family's Randallstown home. His wife, Mary Williams, and oldest daughter, Melvina, embraced him as he walked out of the courthouse into the cold January air.
Williams, who has typically refused news media interviews, said he was returning to the community as a changed man. He acknowledged that he had been entrenched in the lucrative drug business, but said that he changed his ways after a religious conversion.
"When you come, like I did, from a poor African-American community and then you find yourself with so much money that you have to weigh it, you get problems," Williams said. "It's the God complex."
Williams said he rearranged his life in September 1996, after God appeared to him in a vision and "spoke to me as clearly as I'm speaking to you."
In court, Williams told Garbis that he had made "8 million mistakes" in his life, but in each instance had been willing to face his punishment. In asking for leniency, Williams quoted the Bible to the judge, repeating Moses' admonishment from the first chapter of Deuteronomy: "Judge righteously every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him."
"Every day I get up, I try to do something to please God," Williams said outside the courtroom. "I respect the judge. I'm glad he saw fit to let a guy go who has served his time. As Yogi Berra said: 'When it's over, it's over.'"