After two months, Baltimore jail gang case nears jury

Defense for two inmates, five corrections officers and one kitchen worker accused of conspiring with BGF gang told jurors that government's case is full of broad allegations based on hearsay

By Justin Fenton
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE, Md. — After more than two months of testimony, the federal trial of eight defendants in the Baltimore City Detention Center corruption case is expected to be presented to the jury for deliberations as soon as Wednesday.

Defense attorneys for the two inmates, five corrections officers and one kitchen worker accused of conspiring with the Black Guerrilla Family gang told jurors in closing arguments this week that the government's case is full of broad allegations based on hearsay.

"It's been a long trial," attorney Kevin McCants, who is representing defendant Clarissa Clayton, told jurors Tuesday. "You've heard from the defense attorneys over and over. But for good reason."

The eight defendants are fighting charges in a case in which 35 other defendants have pleaded guilty. Federal prosecutors say they were part of a racketeering conspiracy that involved drug dealing, extortion and witness intimidation — an "upside-down world where … corrections officers took direction from gang leaders."

The case has garnered national attention and touched off reforms and improvements at the facility. At trial, BGF leader Tavon White, who has pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy and admitted that he impregnated four corrections officers, testified for the government, outlining how the smuggling operation and politics of the jail worked.

Scores of wiretapped conversations between inmates and guards — some business-like, others romantic — provided insight into the climate within the jail, while attorneys said a guard working undercover for the government also testified to his observations.

Defense attorneys argued Tuesday that government witnesses asserted things that they heard or believed to be true, or couldn't explain with specific dates and other details. In other cases, the witnesses' accusations don't match the charges their clients face, the attorneys said.

For example, attorney Pat Woodward said jurors had heard testimony that his client, corrections officer Ashley Newton, helped gang members carry out a stabbing by unlocking a cell door. But the indictment against his client does not explicitly mention such an incident.

Other incidents that came out in testimony weren't part of the reams of documents turned over to attorneys. "We hear it for the first time on the [witness] stand. That's backward," Woodward said.

When authorities executed search warrants on the homes and vehicles of the corrections officer and jail staff defendants — Clayton, Newton, Riccole Hall, Travis Paylor, Michelle Ricks and Michelle McNair — they did not find drugs, or at least not the volume expected of an alleged prison supplier.

Woodward held up 2 grams of marijuana found in Newton's possession.

"This is it?" he said to the jurors. "This is what they want you to convict my client with?"

Carmen Hernandez, McNair's attorney, said the government had "a few facts, wrapped around a whole lot of fiction."

She said the government had "lost sight of what we're here for" by calling White, the leader of the conspiracy, to testify against alleged lesser conspirators like her client, who she painted as a naive, 20-year-old thrust into a dangerous environment.

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