Dennis Wise, notorious Baltimore crime figure referenced in 'The Wire,' released after decades in prison. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
Dennis D. Wise, an alleged hit man from Baltimore who was locked up for murder in 1979 and then accused of running a large-scale criminal enterprise out of the former Maryland House of Correction, has been released from prison after striking a deal with prosecutors.
Wise — a notorious figure in Baltimore's criminal underworld, for whom the "Cutty" character on HBO's The Wire was named — was shipped to an Arizona prison nearly two decades ago. But he was released June 19 after an Unger hearing, in which city prosecutors agreed to a new sentence of time served plus five years probation.
Under the agreement, the conviction stands, and Wise waives his right to challenge it. If he violates probation, he will be sent back to prison.
Wise, now 66, does not deny that he was once deeply involved in crime. But he maintains his innocence in the 1979 shooting death of 38-year-old James Reid, for which he was convicted, and called the state raid that targeted him and other inmates at the House of Correction in Jessup in 1999 "prison politics."
Wise told The Baltimore Sun it "felt real good" to finally walk out of prison to his family after nearly 40 years behind bars. "There's always a new hope."
He also said it was disorienting to see Baltimore in its current state.
"There's a lot more boarded up houses when I ride through the city," he said. "It's not pleasant."
Wise is among the latest longtime prisoners released under the 2012 Unger ruling, in which the state's highest court questioned the fairness of jury instructions during trials in Maryland before 1980.
City prosecutors said the agreement was an alternative to trying Wise again.
Prosecutors in the office of Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby have struck Unger deals with 122 criminal defendants, largely because it's difficult to retry decades-old cases in which memories have faded, evidence has been lost and witnesses have died.
Five more inmates have died awaiting Unger hearings. Prosecutors are preparing to retry three inmates.
Antonio Gioia, Mosby's chief counsel, said he agreed to the new deal in Wise's case because the likelihood of winning another conviction against him was slim.
The original conviction was based on the testimony of three witnesses, none of whom actually saw Wise shoot Reid. One of them has died, Gioia said. Another has significant integrity issues.
Still, Gioia said, the agreement to let Wise walk — albeit under strict probation — was extremely difficult.
"I really anguished over this decision moreso than many of the other Unger cases, because the conviction was based upon a first-degree murder for hire," Gioia said. "I had to put my feelings aside and weigh the success of a prosecution if the conviction was overturned, versus the certainty of having him on probation for five years.
"There is no getting around it. In the 1970s, he was one of the most dangerous people in Baltimore city," Gioia said. "I knew what we were dealing with, eyes wide open."
News accounts from the time refer to Reid, Wise's victim, as a low-level drug dealer who had allegedly crossed a drug kingpin, who then hired Wise to commit the killing.
Gioia said prosecutors could not locate any of Reid's relatives to consult about Wise's release. He said the Maryland Parole Commission had no victim representative contact information, the autopsy file contained no information about Reid's body being claimed by a family member or being sent to a particular funeral home, and a search for relatives using Reid's surname was unsuccessful.
The Baltimore Sun was also unable to reach family members, or a girlfriend named as a witness in the murder trial.
Wise said he doesn't think Maryland residents should worry about his release. He said he just wants to continue writing, a craft he picked up in prison.
"I'm just another guy trying to come home and do something for myself and my family," he said.
Wise said he is living with family in Anne Arundel County.
Baltimoreans familiar with Wise's reputation expressed mixed reactions about his release.
David Simon, co-creator of The Wire, once called Wise a "stone sociopath."
Simon told The Sun he and co-creator Ed Burns named the "Cutty" character after Wise because they believed at the time that the real Wise was going to be paroled and wanted to send him "an entirely aspirational message" about doing good upon release.
On the show, the onetime gang enforcer Dennis "Cutty" Wise is released from prison, returns to Baltimore and starts a boxing gym for kids.
Wise said he has seen bits of The Wire and is aware his name was used. He welcomed the gesture.
"I appreciate it, because a lot of people try to make you feel like you'll never be nothing," he said.
Howard L. Cardin, Wise's longtime attorney, said Wise was "always candid" and "always standup" with him.
During Wise's trial, prosecutor Leslie Stein called Wise "one of the most dangerous men to come before the court." Stein described Wise as a professional hit man.
In a separate case, federal law enforcement officials said he was an "enforcer" for a Chicago-to-Baltimore heroin ring.
At one point, Cardin said, a police detective blasted him for representing Wise.
"He said, 'How can you represent someone like Dennis Wise? He's the most dangerous man in the world. He's a hit man,'" Cardin said. "And I said, 'I have to disagree with you.'
"He's one of those clients who came to my house. I don't have too many of them. I never felt intimidated by him or that I was jeopardizing the safety of my family, and I had young kids at the time."
Stein, informed of Wise's release, said "so be it." He declined further comment.
Jack Kavanagh, a former high-ranking official in the state corrections department, helped orchestrate the raid of the House of Correction to disrupt Wise's alleged criminal enterprise there in 1999.
Kavanagh. now director of the Howard County Department of Corrections, said Wise's "reputation was well known among the inmate population," and stretched well beyond.
He said law enforcement officials gave corrections officials intelligence that showed Wise was still calling shots on the streets.
Wise says the raid was intended solely to break up the Inmates Advisory Committee, on which he and his friends held seats.
After the raid, Kavanagh said, corrections officials orchestrated the transfer of Wise and many of his top associates out of state to disrupt their influence on the rest of the inmate population.
On Wise's release, Kavanagh said "I just hope he's tired of the lifestyle and that he's going to do what he's supposed to do and move on with his life."
Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith echoed the sentiment.
"Hopefully, he crossed over a bridge during his time of incarceration and that life is behind him, that lifestyle is behind him," Smith said.
Smith said the average age of homicide victims in Baltimore is trending upward, and some of the victims have been older men returning to the streets from prison.
Police are looking into whether the older men, accustomed to a certain street code, are finding themselves vulnerable in a world where such rules — including deference for older players in the game — no longer apply.
"It's something that we're paying attention to," Smith said. "It's part of why we hope that Mr. Wise doesn't involve himself in any activities that led him to prison."
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Wise said he is interested in talking to young kids only about avoiding a life of crime. He's not sure they'll listen to an old head like him, but he's got a lot of experience to share.
Wise said he's planning to compile the stories from his life, and the lives of friends, into fictionalized, dramatized accounts.
"Street life, the pitfalls of certain choices, the futility of gang life," he said, are the themes that dominate his stories, both real and imagined. "I have a chance to show in dramatic fashion what really happens after the choices you make."
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.