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Elite Baltimore City prosecutor unit takes on … a fistfight

When he became state's attorney two years ago, Gregg L. Bernstein created the Major Investigations Unit, pulling in elite prosecutors to go after violent repeat offenders using complex techniques.

In February, the unit took on a new case: a downtown fistfight among a group of people who work in finance.

After police had declined to charge anyone, two 29-year-olds with government clearances and no criminal records were indicted by a grand jury and taken to jail before dawn on a Friday to sit in Central Booking for four days before getting a hearing.

The defense attorneys representing the two men, who are charged with second-degree assault, wonder why prosecutors are taking such an aggressive approach to a relatively common charge. So do two city judges.

"I don't understand," Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill said Tuesday morning after hearing the facts of the case at an arraignment where the defendants pleaded not guilty. He was wondering why the case was scheduled alongside other, more serious crimes.

Earlier, Judge Althea Handy asked why the cases were taken before a grand jury, said the misdemeanor case shouldn't be on the felony docket, and asked to speak to the prosecutor's supervisor.

"I don't like this," Handy said at the hearing.

City prosecutors declined to comment. In court, Assistant State's Attorney Richard Gibson, whose roster of cases typically involves murders and shootings, has said that prosecutors believe the assault was a "brutal beating" and that their approach is appropriate.

Gibson has presented the following facts: Around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 2, the victim, John Avirett, was walking with his girlfriend in the Harbor East area when a car drove through a stop sign and nearly hit them. Avirett hurled a water bottle at the car, Gibson said.

The car stopped, and Jeffrey Strong and John Pulley got out. A fight ensued, and Gibson said Avirett was stomped and kicked. At the bail review hearing, Gibson said the two "basically attacked" Avirett; on Tuesday, he called it a "particularly violent beating."

Police had been called to the scene at the time, and according to the defense attorneys for Strong and Pulley, the officers didn't observe serious injuries and Avirett didn't require hospitalization. The officers advised the victim that if he wanted to press charges, he should go to the district court commissioner's office, according to a police spokeswoman.

The report the officers took was among 9,784 reports for "common assaults" — a lower-level assault — that police took that year, statistics show.

The Major Investigations Unit typically takes on gang members and drug dealers.

Strong, of Elkridge, has an economics degree and has worked for 21/2 years for a government contractor as a financial analyst; Pulley, of Halethorpe, has a management accounting degree and has worked as a senior financial analyst with a software company with a government contract.

Avirett, meanwhile, works for a venture capital firm and played defensive end for the Johns Hopkins University football team while earning a degree in political science. He could not be reached for comment.

None have criminal records, and only Pulley has a prior arrest, for disorderly conduct in 2010, which was dropped by city prosecutors. He is also awaiting a hearing in a traffic case, accused of driving under the influence.

Prosecutors would not say how the case came to their attention. Gibson told Handy that the case came to him through his supervisor, Thiru Vignarajah, a former federal prosecutor picked by Bernstein to head the Major Investigations Unit. They obtained private security camera footage that Gibson said depicts the attack.

"Upon reviewing the cases, a determination was made that they would be indicted. A grand jury approved the case," Gibson told Handy. Gibson said he could have filed the charges as first-degree assault, which under Maryland law is an attack that "creates a substantial risk of death; or causes permanent or protracted serious: disfigurement; loss of the function of any bodily member or organ; or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ."

Few misdemeanor assault cases make it to Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over felony cases and some misdemeanors. Both Handy and Fletcher-Hill told Gibson that the judge in charge of the criminal docket, Judge Barry Williams, doesn't want misdemeanor cases on the felony docket. The volume of cases in the city means defendants often face multiple postponements, and judges and attorneys alike have continually struggled to free up court space for cases that need to be heard.

Ivan Bates, an attorney for Strong, said in court last month that there was no reason for prosecutors to hold his client for days without bail. "He would have been more than happy to turn himself in," Bates said. "I've never seen anything like this. The way this came to court is extremely disconcerting."

At the arraignment on Tuesday, Bates told Fletcher-Hill that he was "angry with the state." With a trial date set for May 28, Fletcher-Hill urged the two sides to "work it out."

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