One of the city's most lucrative bail bond companies is on trial in Baltimore Circuit Court, and testimony in the obstruction-of-justice case could shed light on an industry that some public officials are trying to reform.
Milton Tillman Jr., his son, Milton Tillman III, and Bernard Dixon are accused of conspiring to use the same properties to post bonds for multiple defendants. The Tillmans own 4 Aces Bail Bonds, and Dixon is one of the state-licensed bondsmen they employ.
The trial, which began yesterday and is expected to last several weeks, could reveal loopholes in the bail system that allow dangerous defendants to remain free while awaiting trial. Scheduled to testify are court commissioners who set bail and accept bonds, other bondsmen and possibly judges.
"You'll hear about a scheme that has been operating for years," Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter told jurors in her opening statement. The Tillmans' firm, she said, figured out "how to get people out of jail, legally and illegally."
Each defendant is charged with seven counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and could be sentenced to as much as 35 years in prison if convicted. Dixon and the younger Tillman also are charged with perjury, which carries an additional 10-year sentence.
Defense attorneys for the Tillmans and Dixon say the three are hardworking businessmen who have done nothing illegal. But then 4 Aces "started making more money than anyone else in the city," said A. Dwight Pettit, the elder Tillman's attorney.
"What happens when that happens?" Pettit asked during opening statements. "It's time to investigate. He's got to be doing something wrong because he's making too much money."
Pettit and defense attorneys for Dixon and Tillman's son said envious bondsmen reported false allegations to police and prosecutors eager to reform the system.
Pettit acknowledged problems with the bail bond industry, calling it "arbitrary and capricious."
"The thing about it is, there weren't any rules," he told jurors. The only abiding principle, he said, is that "you'll make money if you do things the right way."
Opening statements spanned about 90 minutes, and the testimony from the first witness, a District Court commissioner, was cluttered with objections - sometimes in unison - from the defense lawyers.
It was a preview of what promises to be a tangle of a trial in many ways. The defense attorneys - Pettit, Edward Smith Jr. and Steven A. Allen - have a century's worth of combined legal experience.
Ritter, a lawyer for 28 years, has studied the bail bond industry extensively, serving on a court-appointed task force in 2003 to investigate the issue at the root of the 4 Aces case she is prosecuting.
For that reason, the defense attorneys asked that she be dismissed from the case. Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock denied that motion. The judge also denied a motion that she recuse herself from the case because of her judicial colleagues' interest in bail reform.
The attorneys told jurors that they would need to learn the dull details of the bail system and warned of an onslaught of paper evidence, "more documents than you've ever seen before," Ritter said.
During opening statements and the District Court commissioner's testimony, jurors' heads were bobbing and brows were furrowing.
James Heard, a commissioner for 33 years, testified about how bails are set and how bonds are posted. He said state-licensed bondsmen are insured up to a certain dollar amount and can post up to that amount to have defendants released from jail as they await their trials.
These "corporate bonds" can be combined with property postings.
With the latter kind of bonds, a commissioner reviews a tax document to determine the value of a property. Up to 80 percent of the value can be posted, after subtracting the mortgage owed and any other liens and fees, Heard said.
Court documents show that prosecutors believe 4 Aces was sometimes using a fraudulent mix of corporate bonds and property bonds to get people out of jail.
Attorneys Smith and Allen said 4 Aces might not have used perfect business practices but that its employees did not consciously commit any crimes.
"You'll see boxes of evidence," Pettit said, "but you won't hear anything about Milton Tillman doing anything wrong."
The elder Tillman is a convicted felon, however. He was imprisoned for tax evasion in 1996 in a case that involved skimming profits from his business, and in 1993 he pleaded guilty to trying to bribe a city zoning board official in an attempt to keep open Odell's, a North Avenue nightclub that was known for fights and gunfire.
It is unclear whether jurors will hear anything about his past.
The 50-year-old, who has owned dozens of dilapidated properties, told a reporter after a pretrial hearing in May, referring to the charges he is now being tried on, "This will all be explained. I'm an honest businessman."