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Murder convictions stand

The Baltimore Sun

A two-judge panel meeting for the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected yesterday a bid by defense lawyers to overturn the convictions of two men in a murder-for-hire case that involved one of Baltimore's biggest drug dealers and which symbolized troubles with city courts.

An attorney for one of the suspects, Solothol "Itchy Man" Thomas, a West Baltimore hit man who had avoided convictions in several cases because of police errors and reluctant witnesses, said he would most likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Noting the appeals court's decision was made without hearing oral arguments, Thomas' lawyer, Arcangelo M. Tuminelli, said he was "kind of disappointed" that he didn't get a chance to argue before the panel. "I am almost certain that we will pursue further relief," he said.

Tuminelli can ask the court to reconsider its opinion, plea for a hearing before the full court or appeal to the nation's highest court, which he said will be the most likely option. The appeals court's six-page opinion is unpublished, meaning it sets no precedent.

Thomas and Eduado Shawan Countess were convicted in federal court of conspiracy to commit murder and using a gun in a crime of violence, which carry mandatory life sentences. Thomas and Countess shot a Milford Mill man 15 times in 2001 in a murder-for-hire plot. The victim had robbed their drug organization in 1999.

In 2002, Thomas became a subject of a report in The Sun, "Justice Undone," a series of articles that noted his past successes in avoiding convictions. He became a symbol of a dysfunctional criminal justice system and, upon his later conviction on the federal charges, an example of how law enforcement can bring down big players in the city's drug trade.

Tuminelli's appeal of the conviction is based on his contention that the trial judge erred by giving jurors an extra instruction during their deliberations as to whether the use of a vehicle during the killing allowed the government to invoke the interstate commerce clause, giving it jurisdiction over the case.

Tuminelli argued that the instructions on the car "shifted the entire focus of the case and we were caught off-guard." Previously in the trial, arguments had centered on whether the defendants' use of telephones was sufficient to provide federal jurisdiction.

The court disagreed with the defense, writing that the interstate commerce clause was satisfied "by the use of either vehicles or telephones, and the government went on to detail the significant role that the Jeep Cherokee played in the murder-for-hire scheme."

Staff report

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