Shackled in a Baltimore courtroom and facing a 110-year sentence for murder and arson, Terrence Rollins-Bey stood defiant — talking over the judge and prosecutor in a series of outbursts.
"With respect to your honor, I object to everything you're saying," he said.
Rollins-Bey, 25, was the second murder defendant in a week to openly challenge the authority of Baltimore Circuit Judge Emanuel Brown. Rollins-Bey and Robert G. Moore claimed in separate trials the court lacked standing to hear their cases — a move the judge described as an attempt to frustrate the proceedings.
Such challenges — which can invoke obscure treaties or the Pope's name — are becoming more frequent, prosecutors say. Defendants often argue they have Moroccan roots that render them exempt from American law, or rely on similar ideas.
Such claims have proved roundly unsuccessful as legal defenses, but have disrupted countless trials.
"Mr. Rollins-Bey presents unfortunately a rather unusual and growing problem within the courts," Assistant State's Attorney Charles Blomquist said at Rollins-Bey's recent sentencing hearing.
Mainstream followers of the Moorish American Science Temple, founded in the early 20th century as a religious and civil rights organization, say such defendants are distorting the faith to serve their own ends. The group's doctrines require adherents to follow all laws.
Yus Asaf-El, who runs a small temple in Montgomery Village, worries that Moorish-American Science, which already has a fractious history, is becoming known only for inmates who claim to be followers and act up in court.
"Lots of people try to take their own interpretation of it," Asaf-El said. "It's causing a lot of conflict."
Moorish-Americans follow a blend of Islam shaped by the movement's founder Noble Drew Ali. They often append El or Bey to their last names. Some followers also claim to have roots in America that predate the United States, and argue that a 1787 treaty with Morocco exempts them from American laws.
At his sentencing, Rollins-Bey drew on language often associated with so-called "sovereign citizens," who rely on arcane readings of the law to claim courts are powerless over them. He repeatedly objected to the legal proceedings and rolled out a blend of religious and quasi-legal phrases.
"I am a natural living soul," he said at one point. Later, he asked, "Is there a claim against me?"
Despite the growing popularity of the strategy, proceedings have continued over the objections of defendants such as Rollins-Bey — even if it means ejecting them from the room.
The case against Moore, 45, is proceeding in his absence because he refuses to cooperate with security officers and be brought to court from a jail cell. Brown and the lawyers in the case visited Moore in the lock-up, and the judge said in court the defendant was "very polite" but declined to talk to them beyond repeating: "I object to any silent contracts."
Jean Williams, Moore's mother, said he has been seeking legal advice from other inmates, but the main reason for his strategy is a belief that he will not get a fair trial.
"It's almost a no-win battle," Williams said.
Moore is accused of leading a drug-dealing group that waged a campaign of vengeance over the death of one of his relatives.
Prosecutors have said they held back some information from the defense team in order to protect their witnesses.
Rollins-Bey, who represented himself, was held in contempt for his outbursts and removed from the courtroom for portions of his trial. He and co-defendant Don Pulley were convicted of killing a man in an execution-style shooting, then torching his car.
His disruptive behavior also got him a stiffer sentence than Pulley, who was convicted on the same charges.
"It's kind of hard for me to sit back and just watch them do their little antics in the courtroom," Reginald Goodman, the victim's stepfather, said in court as he urged the tough punishment for Rollins-Bey.
Rod J. Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said his office has seen a number of "crazy stories" in which defendants try some variation on the idea that courts are powerless over them. Some claim to be representatives of the Pope. Others quibble with their names being spelled in capital letters in court records.
The arguments can be frustrating to prosecutors, Rosenstein said, but rarely do more than slow proceedings down.
"It's sort of a desperation move," he said, and it's most often employed by defendants who have no chance of putting up a legitimate defense.
The notion that claims of Moorish-American heritage can help defendants evade prosecution circulates in the Baltimore City Detention Center, according to Romeo Joyner-El, who worked for the corrections department from 1985 until 2006. People are drawn to the temple because it offers a support network, he said, but some go astray.
Joyner-El, himself a founder of a Moorish-American temple in Rosedale, said inmates would sometimes ask him about the organization's doctrines as their trials approached. He said he tried to steer them away from arguing against the legitimacy of the courts.
"We don't teach that," Joyner-El said. "This is something that some people who are in the [judicial] system use to keep from being responsible."
There are examples in Maryland dating back more than a decade.
In the late 1990s, Clinton Frazier-El tried to fire a federal defender who declined to file motions arguing that Frazier-El was an officer of a temple and could not be prosecuted. Frazier-El was sent for a psychological evaluation and eventually found competent to stand trial.
"We do not view his belief system to be delusional in nature, as it is loosely based on the doctrine of the Moorish Science Temple of America, a recognized organization in the United States," a report from his doctors said. "Mr. Frazier-El appeared to have exaggerated, added to, and distorted the doctrine to benefit himself."
Asaf-El, the Montgomery Village temple leader, said his group does not preach ideas about resisting the courts and urges his members to abide by the law. He is confident the judicial system will win out over supposed followers' claims that they are exempt from laws.
"Justice will get them," Asaf-El said. "We look at justice as karma and it will get you."
Moorish American Science Temple
- Founded in early 20th century as religious and civil rights organization
- Members follow a blend of Islam shaped by movement founder Noble Drew Ali
- Members often append El or Bey to last names