Maurice Mouzon lived a life of second chances.
For more than a dozen years, judge after state judge either set aside criminal charges against him or threw them out altogether. Attempted murder, assault, kidnapping, drug dealing - gone, gone, gone, gone.
On the rare days when Mouzon was convicted of a crime in Baltimore, most of his jail time was suspended. An eight-year prison sentence turned into three years. In one case, a 12-year prison term was boiled down to three days behind bars.
Mouzon's legal luck ended yesterday in U.S. District Court when he received his first lengthy prison sentence - more than 20 years behind bars - on federal drug and gun-possession charges. This time, there will be no suspension of prison time and no hope of parole because it doesn't exist in the federal system.
Prosecutor Jason M. Weinstein told Judge William D. Quarles Jr. that after a string of felonies in state court for drug and gun charges had yielded "little or no consequences" for Mouzon, the prison sentence would mean that drug dealer from the Cherry Hill section of the city would serve "seven times more jail time" for his federal offenses than for his four drug convictions in state court combined.
The sizable sentence was hardly random, prosecutors said. Instead, it highlights the early fruits of an innovative year-old partnership forged between local and federal law enforcement authorities to target the city's most dangerous criminals.
Of the 18 people taken off the streets through the Violent Repeat Offender program, Mouzon is the first to be sentenced in federal court. The program serves as a last-ditch attempt to lock up those who have skated through the criminal justice system without lengthy detours into prison.
"This case is significant not just because of what Maurice Mouzon did. It is significant because of how we caught him doing it," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said.
About every six weeks, a group of local, state and federal agents met at his office to present their candidates to be targeted, Rosenstein said. A rigorous review follows to determine whether a federal investigation has a good chance of producing a conviction in U.S. District Court.
If so, Rosenstein said, they marshal the efforts of city and federal law enforcement to bring to justice defendants who have long assumed that the criminal justice process would slow them down only temporarily.
Despite the benefits of prosecuting gun violence cases in federal court, the process takes a fraction of the city's violent crime cases, leaving the vast majority to the state's attorney's office.
Often hampered by insufficient evidence, unreliable witnesses or absent police officers, city prosecutors won guilty verdicts in more than a third of their 711 gun crime cases last year. Margaret Burns, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, defended the performance of her office in the Mouzon case, saying that the virtual elimination of his 12-year prison sentence was a strategic choice.
"The federal investigators asked to keep him on the street so the investigation could be ongoing and so they could get him on the federal charge," Burns said. "And they couldn't get the federal sentence of more than 20 years if they didn't plead him out."
Mouzon's criminal record is replete with dropped charges, including first-degree assault in 1997 and attempted first-degree murder in 2002.
Mouzon's downfall resulted from information provided by confidential informants culled by city police and undercover drug purchases from one of Mouzon's lieutenants, who later pleaded guilty to federal drug-trafficking charges and is likely to receive a similarly lengthy sentence in U.S. District Court today.
Baltimore police officers and FBI agents also watched Mouzon and his drug dealers for months, court papers show, ultimately obtaining a search warrant for his home and car, where authorities found more than 200 grams of powder cocaine, $7,000 in suspected drug proceeds and a loaded .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Mouzon's lawyer argued yesterday in court that, like many residents of the city's most depressed neighborhoods, his client lost his father at an early age and sought to make "fast money" for his family.
The judge stopped attorney Stanley H. Needleman when he appeared to be on the verge of saying that the federal punishment could be seen as excessive.
The judge said he hears the argument often from lawyers for defendants who are shocked by the potential penalties in federal court. That said, Quarles added it was important to view Mouzon as a human being "and not just a criminal record."
As the hearing closed, Mouzon attempted to withdraw his guilty plea yesterday, saying that he wanted to erase some of his past convictions, including one case in which he had been represented by an attorney who was disbarred in the middle of the legal proceedings. It was those convictions that created a designation for him in federal court as an "armed career criminal."
The judge indicated he was satisfied that Mouzon had fully understood the risks when he pleaded guilty in February. Then, Quarles imposed the 20-year-plus sentence on a man who had never spent more than three years in prison.