In his years as a city detective, Edward P. Burns helped send to federal prison some of the worst drug dealers to come out of Baltimore's west-side housing projects. He took a turn on the other side yesterday, testifying as a defense witness about the hopelessness and violence that pervaded the Lexington Terrace apartments.
Burns, now a producer and writer for HBO's Baltimore-based crime drama The Wire, described killings carried out in the middle of the day, barren apartments used as "shooting galleries" for heroin addicts and young boys who came of age viewing the drug trade as their only career path.
"When you came up to the corner, this is the choice - this is the only choice you ever had," Burns said.
Burns recounted his experience in the now-demolished Lexington Terrace high-rises for a jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that will choose a sentence of death or life in prison without parole for two men who were part of a drug gang known as the Lexington Terrace Boys, named for the complex where its members grew up together.
Michael L. Taylor, 20, and Keon D. Moses, 21, were convicted this month on federal drug conspiracy and weapons violations in connection with three homicides - a double slaying in a basement rowhouse on Sept. 23, 2001, and the fatal shooting five months later of a potential witness.
Defense attorneys are trying to avoid a death sentence by presenting mitigating evidence about the men's difficult childhood in what was one of Baltimore's poorest and most violent public housing developments.
Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, have linked the gang to six other homicides at trial, including a double homicide that authorities say Taylor committed two days before Christmas in 2001.
In court records, prosecutors also connect the men to three other homicides - putting the gang's toll at 12 dead - but the jury did not hear testimony about those killings.
The crimes attributed to the Lexington Terrace Boys in some ways echoed the violence in the housing complex in the 1980s, when Taylor and Moses were growing up there and when Burns was helping to bring down a violent heroin operation overseen by a man named Warren "Black" Boardley, himself a product of the projects.
Boardley's multimillion-dollar ring employed more than a half-dozen hired killers and had at least 50 retail dealers in the West Baltimore housing complex. His reign ended with federal authorities charging 10 members of his operation in a sweeping racketeering case.
Boardley, then 27, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in June 1989. He was sentenced to 46 years in federal prison.
In his testimony yesterday, Burns described Boardley's violent run and ticked off the names of other dealers notorious in the city's drug trade: Melvin "Little Melvin" Williams, Lamont Farmer, Kenny "Bird" Jackson and Cookie Savage. The tightly controlled drug operations in the city's public housing meant that for children growing up there, "it was the only world they ever knew," Burns said.
Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith, Burns said he opposes the death penalty but that his views about capital punishment had not influenced his testimony. He also acknowledged that not every child of the project became a drug dealer or a murderer.