Tavon White, the Black Guerrilla Family gang leader who prosecutors say essentially took over Baltimore's jail while an inmate there will be a government witness during a trial against eight remaining defendants. (Baltimore Sun video)
The Black Guerrilla Family gang leader who prosecutors say essentially took over Baltimore's jail while an inmate there will be the government's star witness against the eight remaining defendants, attorneys said as the trial opened Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reeves Harding said the prosecution would demonstrate breathtakingly rampant corruption, "an upside-down world where ... corrections officers took direction from gang leaders." And he said BGF leader Tavon White would help to make that case.
Defense attorneys made clear that they will attempt to discredit White's testimony, saying he has cut a deal with prosecutors and can't be trusted. White is serving a 20-year sentence for an unrelated attempted-murder conviction but, under his plea agreement, would not face additional time for the jail corruption charges.
"He gets no time from this case if he satisfies them," attorney Richard B. Bardos told the jury.
White's intercepted telephone conversations in which he called the Baltimore City Detention Center "my jail" and revelations that he fathered children with multiple corrections officers helped catapult the case into national headlines, and led to scrutiny and reforms at the state-run facility.
The eight defendants — five corrections officers, two inmates, and a kitchen worker — are the first and only ones to go to trial in the racketeering conspiracy case. Prosecutors secured 35 guilty pleas from the others charged.
The case will be closely watched for revelations about the scandal, and some high-ranking officials — including the director of pretrial services, Wendell "Pete" France — are expected to be called to testify.
Prosecutors opened their presentation by displaying White's more colorful quotes from wiretapped conversations on large poster boards, including the "my jail" assertion. They outlined a slew of sordid allegations involving jail cell sex, love triangles, extortion, drug dealing, smuggling, assaults and jockeying for power.
Much of the evidence, defense attorneys countered, is mere gossip with no supporting evidence.
"It's worse than the worst reality TV show," defense attorney Carmen D. Hernandez told jurors later. "Jerry Springer has nothing on it."
White was one of the first defendants to plead guilty in the racketeering case, and in his plea agreement, he implicated more corrections officers than originally charged, including some of those now on trial.
Prosecutors say White rose to power during a three-year stay at the jail awaiting trial for attempted second-degree murder.
Bardos said White's plea deal calls for him to receive 12 years for his role in the jail corruption scheme. But the agreement calls for that time to run concurrently to the state sentence, which Bardos said means White won't serve a day in prison for the BGF case.
Prosecutors did not comment on the plea agreement.
Others expected to testify for the government, according to defense attorneys, include convicted corrections officers Katera Stevenson and Kimberly Dennis.
The trial is expected to last into next year.
Defense attorneys said their clients got wrapped up in a corrupt environment where administrators looked the other way as criminals dictated the rules of the facility. But they said the government could not prove the specific allegations against the defendants except with testimony from people who have already pleaded guilty in exchange for their cooperation.
Harding said individual witnesses have only a "partial view" of what took place throughout the facility's various buildings and wings, but their testimony will collectively show a conspiracy.
Defense attorneys alleged Wednesday that the former security chief at the detention center, Shavella Miles, who was forced from her job but has never been charged, was complicit in the scheming taking place at the jail.
Bardos called the corruption "state-approved, state-facilitated, and administration-encouraged."
Edward Charles Sussman, the attorney for corrections officer Michelle Ricks, said visitors to the jail are greeted with a sign showing smiling government officials. "It should say, 'Welcome to Hell,'" Sussman said, claiming administrators cared only that no one was killed or escaped.
According to court documents, a former corrections officer told the FBI that jail management held "town hall meetings" with the gang to get tips on how to better operate the institution. Officials have denied that there were high-level meetings between administrators and gangs, but said jail administrators have long held meetings with inmates to discuss "detainee issues" that include tensions between gangs.
Russell Neverdon, an attorney for Miles, said she "has categorically denied any and all of these allegations" and said the claims were a "strategic ploy" by the defense to mislead jurors. He said she won't be testifying for either side.
While Bardos said his client, inmate Joseph "Monster" Young, is not guilty of the allegations against him, he also said that the criminal activity and gang allegiances were so widespread that it was impossible not to be implicated in some way.
"You couldn't not associate with the BGF in this jail," Bardos said. "If you didn't act like you were complicit and OK with the BGF, you were not going to survive."
Attorney Michael Montemarano echoed Bardos' comments, saying the wrongdoing came from "orders from on high" because administrators wanted to work with the gang to ensure a modicum of control over what was taking place.
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Harding called Michelle McNair, an employee in the jail's kitchen, a "prolific smuggler" who had sexual relationships with two inmates. But her attorney, Hernandez, said there's no proof of the allegations beyond jailhouse rumors, and said prosecutors want jurors to believe the word of a "predator," White. Hernandez described her client as a young woman who was attending community college on a scholarship and was thrust into a world where the inmates were calling the shots and supervisors looked the other way.
"It's a little maddening to suggest that a 20-year-old woman is facilitating this," Hernandez said of the government's accusation.
Of White's credibility, Hernandez noted that the gang leader was able to somehow maintain sexual relationships with four different corrections officers by playing them off of one another. She said evidence shows that at one point, he gave a Mercedes-Benz to one officer, then told her to give it to another of his paramours, who drove it to work, leading to a fight among the women.