A 31-year-old man who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in Baltimore after he pleaded guilty to possessing 5.9 grams of marijuana won an appeal Wednesday invalidating the plea — raising the possibility that he will be released.
Ronald Hammond took the plea in the 2012 case after Baltimore District Judge Askew Gatewood told prosecutors that "5.9 grams won't roll you a decent joint" and suggested Hammond accept the plea and pay a fine.
Soon after pleading, Hammond was called back to court and informed that his plea violated the terms of his probation for a prior conviction for distribution of crack cocaine.
Circuit Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays had given Hammond a suspended sentence of 20 years in that case, and warned that he would face the whole term if he violated the probation. She made good on that warning in 2013.
Hammond now has an expected release date of 2028. But his victory before Chief Judge Alfred J. Nance on Wednesday could get him out a lot sooner, his attorney said.
Nance vacated Hammond's pot plea based on the argument that Hammond had not been properly informed of his right to counsel when Gatewood suggested he take the deal, attorney Gabriela Hopkins said.
"I do think that Judge Nance was sensitive to the overall fairness issue, as well," she said.
With that decision, Hopkins said, the state has two options.
In one scenario, prosecutors could try to charge Hammond anew. But that might be difficult, because possession of 5.9 grams of pot is no longer a criminal offense in Maryland, but a violation that can be settled with a civil citation.
"It's possible that the state could still bring the case," she said. "The counter-argument then is, they're prosecuting him today on something that is no longer a crime."
In the second scenario, Hopkins said, prosecutors could simply drop the case.
If that happens, Hopkins said, she will immediately file a motion before Stewart-Mays to revisit the probation violation. With no conviction, Hopkins said, there was no violation.
Assistant State's Attorney Michael Brown did not suggest which path he would take in court Wednesday, Hopkins said. Reached by phone, he referred questions to the state's attorney's office.
That office did not respond to a request for comment.
Hopkins said Hammond is eager to get home and start supporting his two young children again, as he was doing when he violated his probation.
Early on Wednesday, Hopkins said, Hammond looked at her nervously.
"One of the things he said to me right before the hearing was, 'If we lose, it's not over, right?'" Hopkins said.
"I told him, 'We're going to keep fighting this no matter what. We're not going to give up on you.'"
Before Nance gave his ruling, he prefaced it with some tough talk for Hammond, Hopkins said, and Hammond thought they had lost.
Hopkins, listening closely to Nance, knew otherwise. Looking at Hammond, she mouthed the words, "We won," she said.
"He just looked up at heaven and said, 'Thank you,'" she said. "But I don't think it fully hit. I think he was overcome."