The owners of one of Baltimore's most successful bail bond companies were acquitted yesterday of perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
Milton Tillman Jr.; his son, Milton Tillman III; and Bernard Dixon were accused of conspiring to use the same properties to post bonds for multiple defendants. The Tillmans run 4 Aces Bail Bonds in East Baltimore, and Dixon is one of the state-licensed bondsmen they employ.
Their two-week Baltimore Circuit Court trial, which included thousands of documents and days of technical testimony about how bail bonds work, spotlighted an industry that some are hoping to reform.
"Bondsmen are the most powerful, and least scrutinized, player in the criminal justice system," said Douglas Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the industry for more than eight years.
"Both judicial and elected officials need to pay much more attention to bail bondsmen and the bail industry."
In the past decade, several statewide task forces on the topic have recommended changes - some of which have been beaten back by lobbyists for the bondsmen. At least two committees, one made up of city criminal justice officials and another mostly of judges from across the state, are slated to take up bail bond issues this fall.
In the 4 Aces trial, which began Sept. 18, attorneys for the Tillmans and Dixon argued that the drive for bail reform, coupled with jealousy of competing bond companies, led to false accusations against their clients.
The defendants each were charged with seven counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice. The younger Tillman and Dixon also were charged with one count of perjury. Convictions could have meant decades of prison time.
The elder Tillman, 50, has served time for bribery and tax evasion. Those cases were related to his businesses over the years, which included other bail bond companies and Odell's, a North Avenue nightclub that was known for fights and gunfire before it was shut down in the 1990s.
Their attorneys said that any "double-postings" of property were accidental - pointing out that 4 Aces posts bonds for about 20,000 defendants every year.
"When you're big enough, you get a target on your chest," said Steven A. Allen, the younger Tillman's attorney, in his closing argument Tuesday.
Prosecutors hinted that the scope of 4 Aces' wrongdoing was much larger than the charges against it.
"This case is only a snapshot of what's going on in one period of time," said Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter.
Her co-counsel, Assistant State's Attorney Piper McKeithen, said of the double-postings, "They weren't mistakes."
"How do we know they weren't mistakes?" she asked jurors in her closing argument. "It happened over and over and over again."
Jurors reached their not-guilty verdicts after about 90 minutes of deliberations - signaling a "complete rejection of the state's case," Allen said afterward.
In a statement released after the verdict, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office wrote that prosecutors "are very disappointed."
Despite "compelling evidence that we believe pointed to egregious violations of the bail industry," spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns wrote, " ... the jury deliberated quickly over almost two dozen counts of conspiracy and perjury, charging three co-defendants, and arrived at their verdict within less than 90 minutes of deliberations."
One issue that defense attorneys raised in an unsuccessful pretrial motion was the primary prosecutor's interest in the bail bond industry. Ritter had served on a state bail task force appointed in late 2003 by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
The task force met several times before issuing a draft report in June 2004. Members said that one of the main topics was the proliferation of double-posting properties.
A spokesman for the Maryland Judiciary said yesterday that Bell plans to resurrect the bail task force in the next few weeks.
And the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council recently formed a work group to study bail reform headed by State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.
Colbert said it is "unusual to charge a leading bail bondman with a criminal offense," and he urged more judicial oversight of the bond industry.