A Baltimore gang member who was improperly cajoled by a federal judge into pleading guilty in the middle of a drug conspiracy trial was resentenced yesterday to a prison term of about 21 years, far less than the 60-year sentence he originally received.
A year ago, a federal appeals court threw out convictions that sent three Baltimore gang members to prison for decades, saying the trial judge had wrongly immersed himself into negotiations with the defendants and improperly encouraged them to enter guilty pleas.
Interviewed after the appeals court decision was announced, the federal judge in Baltimore, Andre M. Davis, acknowledged that he had erred.
The case was reassigned to a different judge in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and a new trial ordered for all three.
Yesterday, one defendant, 27-year-old Solomon Levi Jones, decided to plead guilty again to a single drug conspiracy charge and was immediately sentenced to 262 months in prison, a little more than a third of his original prison sentence. Cases for the other two defendants are pending.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis proceeded cautiously yesterday, checking with Jones to ensure that "nobody is trying to force you to plead guilty."
Jones, who has been incarcerated since 2001, is serving a 25-year-prison sentence for a murder conviction related to the same case. The two sentences will run concurrently, and he can receive credit for prison time served, the judge said.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick told Garbis that the sentence outlined in the plea agreement for Jones would fall within recommended federal guidelines.
Advocating the lower part of the recommended guidelines at 262 months in prison, Jones' attorney, Harvey Greenberg, argued that the murder conviction in state court meant that his client would end up serving prison time until his 40th birthday.
The case started in August 2000 with an indictment in U.S. District Court against three men, including Eric L. Bennett, the reputed leader of a crack cocaine ring that stretched from street corners in Northeast Baltimore to Main Street in Westminster.
Federal prosecutors argued that the drug gang, known as the "Old York and Cator Boys," routinely used violence to protect its turf. Bennett ordered a pair of drive-by shootings Jan. 18, 2000, that left two young men dead, according to prosecutors.
The trial started in January 2002. On its second day, Davis ordered the jury and prosecutors to leave before he spoke alone to the defendants, including Jones.
Davis restarted plea negotiations, but they were not successful. The trial continued for two more weeks. In February, Davis tried again.
"I don't understand why you continue to sit through this trial, to be perfectly blunt about it," the judge said, chastising Bennett and the other defendants.
The next day, all three defendants pleaded guilty.