Two soldiers who had failed to get a criminal weapons case against them postponed so they could be deployed to Iraq pleaded guilty yesterday to misdemeanor handgun charges and were sentenced to probation.
But a Baltimore Circuit Court judge agreed to delay signing the probation order, allowing Pfc. Denario Wesson, 19, and Spc. Joshua Johnson, 24, to leave Maryland and join their Fort Hood, Texas-based Army unit in Iraq for a 15-month tour in the war zone.
The outcome was a quick but tentative resolution to a case that began with the soldiers' arrest after a gun was fired to ward off a menacing crowd outside a Cherry Hill nightclub March 19. Prosecutors refused to delay the case, despite pleas to do so from the soldiers' defense attorney, their commanding officer at Fort Hood and a representative from the military's Judge Advocate General.
Instead, Circuit Judge Sylvester Cox accepted the men's guilty pleas, gave them probation before judgment and ordered them to return to Baltimore after their deployment for a follow-up hearing, so that terms of their probation could be set.
"I'm happy that I'll be able to deploy to my unit," Johnson said outside the Mitchell Courthouse after the hearing. "I'm just happy that I can put this behind me."
The soldiers had been visiting Baltimore when they got into a dispute outside Club Taste International about 11:20 p.m. Wesson said he reached into his car, got his gun and fired two rounds to scare away an advancing crowd that he said threatened to shoot them.
An officer pulled over their car a short time later and arrested them after finding a gun hidden under each seat.
Prosecutors said they had initially declined to delay the case because of the seriousness of gun violence in Baltimore, even as the soldiers' attorney called the prosecutors' steadfastness unpatriotic.
But yesterday, defense attorney Arthur M. Frank thanked the city state's attorney's office for moving quickly to bring the case to court so that the soldiers could join their unit, which is in Iraq, by Tuesday.
The unusual outcome of the court proceeding was made possible when Cox filed his probation sentence report without signing it. That relieves the soldiers of having to abide by the terms of the sentence, which would have made it impossible for them to leave the state.
Cox said he would have the soldiers back in court when they return from Iraq, at which time he could formally impose the sentence or vacate the verdicts, which can be done in probation before judgment cases.
"The city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland is not Iraq, although some of our citizens may act like it's so," Cox told the soldiers in court. Noting the soldiers' military service and their willingness to be deployed to combat, Cox said it was "more prudent" to offer them probation before judgment so they could go to Iraq.
Cox then warned Wesson and Johnson: "But you understand that when you come back, you've got to deal with [this] court."
Paul O'Connor, a city prosecutor, had recommended that each be sentenced to three years in prison, with all but six months suspended, followed by three years of probation.
Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for prosecutors, said the case was resolved satisfactorily. "We have to prosecute any legitimate gun case that comes forward," Sviatko said. "We have to do that in every case, without partiality."
Wesson and Johnson each pleaded guilty to one count of illegal handgun possession. It is a misdemeanor because neither has a prior criminal record. As part of the plea, each man must forfeit his handguns, which each legally owned but did not possess a permit to carry in Maryland.
In court, Frank argued for leniency, saying his clients had exemplary records. He offered Cox letters of support from their commanding officer.
After the hearing, Frank said he hoped that the judge at the follow-up hearing next year could decide to not impose any additional supervision or sentence.
"As long as these young men do what they're supposed to, that will be the end of the case," Frank said.