Two former Glenelg High School students accused of hate crimes have received offers from Howard County prosecutors to allow them to enter pleas in their cases, which could allow them to avoid trials, according to new information presented in court Wednesday.
Four seniors at the west-central county school were arrested and charged after racial epithets and swastikas, including one police said targeted the school’s African-American principal, were found May 24 painted on the school’s exterior walls, sidewalks and parking lot.
During initial appearances throughout the summer, all four teens did not enter a plea on the misdemeanor charges, which center on race or religious harassment, trespassing and destruction of property.
At court hearings Wednesday morning, where the potential of plea bargains first surfaced publicly, Seth Taylor, 19, of Glenwood, and Joshua Shaffer, 18, of Mount Airy, appeared with their lawyers before Judge William V. Tucker to discuss scheduling for potential trials
Debra Saltz, Taylor’s attorney, said she received a plea bargain offer from the state’s attorney’s office in the middle of last week and was “feeling a bit rushed” in fully explaining the offer to Taylor and she requested a postponement in the case. Saltz said she was “working on the elements of the plea” with her client.
“I do anticipate this will be a plea,” Saltz said in court.
Shaffer’s attorney, Joe Murtha, asked the judge also asked for postponement after receiving new evidence on Nov. 14. Murtha said he received a plea offer eight days ago.
“I do believe it’s headed towards a plea,” Murtha said in court.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Murtha said he’s “looking forward to resolving the case and we will be back in December.”
Tucker approved moving both trials to Dec. 27.
A spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office could not comment on specifics of any plea bargain terms because agreements were not presented in open court. It also is not clear whether two others charged in the case, Tyler Curtiss, 18, of Brookeville, and Matthew Lipp, 18, of Woodbine, have been offered deals. Their attorneys did not immediately respond for comment Thursday.
Prosecutors offer plea agreements for a variety of reasons, including avoiding a protracted, costly trial and keeping witnesses from having to recall trauma if they are called to testify, according to David Jaros, an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore law school.
A plea can also involve lesser charges and penalties, said Jaros, who is not involved in the Glenelg cases.
“The defense attorney has a different set of obligations, an ethical obligation, to vigorously advocate [for] their client,” Jaros said. “They have to calculate what is best for their client, risking a more serious conviction or penalty [if a case goes to trial] or accepting the definite cost of what the plea offer is.”
If convicted of the initial charges -- three counts related to race or religious harassment, two trespassing counts and two destruction of property-related counts — the youths could face up to three years behind bars and a $5,000 fine on the most serious charges.
Trials for Lipp and Curtiss are expected in the next two months. Curtiss is also expected to appear for a motions hearing on Dec. 18.
The four graduated from Glenelg High School in May, according to a county schools spokesman.