A Baltimore judge threw out a plea deal Thursday for a man who was sentenced previously to time served for an arson and ordered him held in custody until a later hearing.
The 18-count criminal indictment filed against Luther Moody Trent of Baltimore for attempted murder and arson was pleaded out in December and he received a sentence of time served under an agreement with the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
But an attorney for the victims said they never got their day in court to tell the judge how the crime impacted their lives. And the sentence for the violent offense has stirred up criticism of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
At Thursday’s hearing, the three victims got their day in court and Circuit Court Judge Melissa M. Phinn vacated the plea and reinstated the indictment. A new hearing for Trent was scheduled for Feb. 18, and he was ordered held in custody.
In his earlier plea, Trent admitted to setting fire to a house in the 1900 block of Linden Ave. in West Baltimore. His ex-girlfriend and two other people were inside.
“I was traumatized by this man and I will never feel safe,” said Trent’s ex-girlfriend, Alexis, who described the terror of waking to find her home on fire. The Sun is withholding her last name because she said she fears for her safety.
She said she continues to struggle to regain a sense of normalcy and safety after the blaze, and described how she was further victimized by not being given a chance to speak before Trent’s sentencing.
“It will take years to recover from this,” Alexis said.
As she spoke over video, Trent sat at the front of the courtroom, with his arms folded in his lap and his head down.
Brooks Rubin said he also was in the home the night of the fire, and was never asked about his experience. He said there were repeated threats and intimidation by Trent leading up to that night, keeping him from sleeping most nights. He said he again fears for his safety.
“I should expect retaliation,” he said.
Rubin said the justice system failed them, and told the judge that at “the very least” you can keep him from causing additional harm by vacating the earlier plea.
At a hearing in December, Trent’s attorney and the prosecutor agreed upon the terms, and the judge accepted the plea and handed down the sentence.
Before the deal, the victims were unable to give what’s known as a victim impact statement, expressing how the defendant’s action affected them.
Their attorney, Thiru Vignarajah, later filed the motion arguing Phinn erred in accepting the plea with an agreed-upon sentence before hearing from the two victims in attendance and without the third victim having a fair opportunity to give a victim impact statement.
Vignarajah, who ran against Mosby in the 2017 Democratic primary for Baltimore state’s attorney, said after Thursday’s hearing that the judge’s ruling sets an important precedent in the city.
“This makes clear that victims have to give their input before the ink of a plea deal dries,” he said. “That plainly has not been happening. I don’t know how many cases there are where victims were not given a chance to give a statement. This decision ensures that in Baltimore City going forward, that prosecutors and judges will be on notice that victims have to have their say, before anyone contemplates giving away their case in plea.”
Vignarajah’s motion cited a Court of Special Appeals case, Antoine v. State, where the court established that a judge is not supposed to accept a plea with a binding sentence without giving the victim an opportunity to present victim impact evidence. If a judge makes that mistake, the court is supposed to throw out the plea and sentence, Vignarajah argued.
Allan Rombro, Trent’s attorney, disagreed, and argued that the court should honor his plea. He said two of the victims gave “impassioned” impact statements before Phinn issued the sentence.
“The judge did exactly what she was supposed to do,” Rombro said previously.
Ultimately, the judge sided with the victims. Phinn said that had she not been bound by the plea, she would not have agreed to a suspended sentence, which she called “not appropriate.”
The fire burned through a back deck of the Bolton Hill home and caused an estimated $40,000 in damage, according to police reports.
Baltimore Police Detective Kyle Kruesi wrote that when he arrived at the scene, a man walked up wearing glasses, no shirt, dark jeans and white shoes. The man identified himself as Trey Johnson and claimed his cousin lived in the house. Johnson became anxious after talking to police for a few minutes and drove away in a two-door black Honda Accord.
The people inside the house told police the cousin had moved out months ago.
Trent’s ex-girlfriend then mentioned that he had threatened her. She had taken out a peace order against him in March after breaking up with him. After running Trent’s name through databases, Kruesi said he determined it was Trent who had come to the scene claiming to be Trey Johnson.
Police found a neighbor whose surveillance camera captured a black two-door Honda Accord driving past the house and slowly circling the block moments after the fire started, according to charging documents. Another neighbor’s camera captured a shirtless man in dark jeans and white shoes running from the house with a red gas can, police wrote. Moments later, the camera captured the black two-door Honda driving away.
Because the back deck collapsed from the fire, however, a police dog was unable to identify accelerants, police wrote.
“Can I just inquire why the state is coming in with a suspended sentence on an arson?” Phinn asked before handing down the sentence in December.
Assistant State’s Attorney Jerry Jones told Phinn there was only so much they could prove with the available evidence. He said forensic evidence wasn’t able to establish the cause of the fire and that there was no eyewitness to identify the perpetrator.
“It is a circumstantial case, and the state is concerned that given these facts it is possible a jury comes back not guilty,” Jones told the judge.
Assistant State’s Attorney Michele Lambert replaced Jones on the case, which has become a flashpoint in this year’s race for state’s attorney — in part, by chance.
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Defense attorney Roya Hanna, who’s challenging Mosby in the June primary, happened to tune in to the video of December’s hearing while waiting for her client’s case to be called. She called a news conference to bring attention to the case and reached out to Vignarajah, a former prosecutor and private attorney who stepped up to help the victims.
“These amazing women are fighting to rectify this miscarriage of justice and to make sure this never happens again,” Hanna said in an interview. “The State’s Attorney’s Office’s unwillingness to hold violent offenders accountable and to support victims must stop.”
Ivan Bates, a defense attorney who’s challenging Mosby for a second time, called his own news conference to weigh in on the case.
“Women across the city, including the victims of this specific crime, have to live knowing that their city is not working to protect them in their most vulnerable moments,” Bates told The Sun. “This is a dangerous precedent that only encourages violence, especially intimate partner violence.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Trent sought to be released until the next hearing, telling the judge he is an electrical engineering student at Morgan State University. He said that since his sentencing in December, he has abided by the terms of his release. He said he has been seeing a psychologist and trying to better himself.
But Phinn told him that by vacating his plea, “you go back into the same position,” she told him.
Trent pulled his phone from his pocket as he stood at the trial table in the courtroom and called family members before sheriff’s deputies handcuffed him and took him away.