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Plea deal likely for Dawson suspect

An East Baltimore man accused of setting fire to a neighbor's home in one of the city's deadliest arsons is expected to plead guilty next week to federal charges that likely would mean life in prison, sparing him a possible death sentence.

Darrell L. Brooks, 22, charged in the deaths of Carnell and Angela Dawson and their five children, was scheduled to stand trial next month. But court records indicate that Brooks will instead plead guilty at a re-arraignment and sentencing hearing scheduled Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.

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It was unclear yesterday what specific charge was part of the pending plea deal with federal prosecutors. Brooks was charged in December in a 10-count indictment that included seven counts of arson resulting in death, a crime that can bring the federal death penalty.

He was also charged with destruction of property, possessing unregistered firearms - for the two Molotov cocktails that authorities alleged were thrown into the Dawsons' rented rowhouse on East Preston Street - and using the crude firebombs in a violent crime, a charge that can carry a life sentence.

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Maryland federal public defender James Wyda, who represents Brooks, declined to comment on the case last night.

Vickie E. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, also declined to comment. LeDuc would say only that an announcement was expected at a news conference after Wednesday's hearing in Brooks' case.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, through her spokeswoman, confirmed that she was asked by DiBiagio's office to attend a news conference Wednesday morning but declined to comment further. Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the lead investigative agency in the case, also were expected to attend the media event.

A plea deal would bring to a quiet close a case that touched off fresh outrage about Baltimore's struggle against crime and violence. Investigators have said that the early-morning fire on Oct. 16 last year was set in retaliation for the Dawsons' efforts to fight drug dealing in their neighborhood.

The deadly fire also brought new scrutiny of the state court and probation systems, where Brooks had faced a string of armed robbery, assault and other charges, dating to at least 1998. State officials have acknowledged that at the time of the fire, Brooks could have been jailed for failing to report to his state probation officer as required under an April conviction for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.

A spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has made the Dawsons' deaths a touchstone in his continuing campaign to fight crime in the city, said last night that they had no information about the possible plea deal.

"Obviously, the mayor is very interested in seeing justice done, particularly in the Dawson case," spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

Brooks was arrested within hours of the fire and initially charged in state court with multiple counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Angela Dawson, 36, and the children, ages 9 to 14. Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped the fire by jumping out a second-story window but died a week later.

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Federal authorities, involved in the case from the first hours of the investigation, eventually brought charges against Brooks in U.S. District Court, which typically has less lenient juries and where defendants typically face harsher penalties.

Although the federal charges against Brooks could carry a death sentence, it is not automatic. The decision about whether to seek a death sentence in federal court is made by the local U.S. attorney's office in concert with officials at the Department of Justice in Washington.

Those deliberations are not part of the public proceedings in federal criminal cases. In the case against Brooks, federal prosecutors had not filed a notice of their intent to seek the death penalty - the first public indication that the government will ask for a death sentence.

The possibility of a high-profile federal death penalty trial had prompted Wyda to ask a federal judge to move the case outside Baltimore, arguing that the region's residents were so outraged by the case that they could not serve as impartial jurors. Federal prosecutors had opposed that request.


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