Misconduct Probe Cuts Sentences In D.C. Case
By Henri E. Cauvin; Washington Post
December 24, 2004
The U.S. attorney's office in the District has agreed to the release of a man convicted of murder and a reduction in the charges against two others in a case that defense attorneys say was riddled with deliberate prosecutorial misconduct.
The concessions in the case are the latest fallout from the work of a homicide prosecutor who handled some of the highest-profile trials in the District during the early 1990s and left a legal mess that is still being sorted out.
A confidential Justice Department investigation, conducted from 1996 to 1998 but unsealed only late last year, found that the prosecutor, G. Paul Howes, abused the stipend system for witnesses, doling out excessive amounts to cooperating witnesses and, more significantly, to the friends and family of witnesses.
Such payments are intended primarily to compensate witnesses for time spent testifying or preparing to testify in a case and are supposed to be given only to legitimate witnesses. When they are handed out to others, such as girlfriends, or when witnesses are summoned on days they are not needed simply to claim a voucher, the payments can verge on financial inducement.
The investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility focused on a major murder and drug trafficking case that Howes tried in federal court, but it also found that his abuses of vouchers apparently extended to a conspiracy case that Howes wrapped up in D.C. Superior Court in the spring of 1994.
In the case, a D.C. police officer and members of a drug gang were accused of being involved in the kidnapping and killing of a drug dealer and a plot to kill three of the dealer's associates. That trial, before Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr., led to the convictions of several people, including Javier Card, Jerome Edwards Jr. and Antoine W. Rice.
A number of people connected to the case received vouchers, according to some of the defense attorneys. But the vouchers, which should have been from Superior Court, were from U.S. District Court, where Howes's federal investigation, known as the Newton Street case, was prosecuted. And many of the people who were paid were not even witnesses, the lawyers found.
In the Newton Street case, which involved several trials, disclosures of misconduct have led to dropped charges and significant reductions in sentences. In 2002, prison terms were reduced for four defendants who had been sentenced to multiple life sentences. Two were given 23-year terms, and two were given 18-year terms. This month, the 30-year sentences of two defendants in another of the Newton Street trials were cut by more than half, and the defendants are expected to be released in the spring.
The Justice Department investigation, kept under seal for years, found that the voucher system was loosely run and easily manipulated. Howes's abuse of the payments was intentional and could have warranted criminal charges, investigators said. But prosecuting him would have been "virtually impossible" because he could have argued that he was acting in the interest of justice and not for personal gain, the investigators said.
Many developments in the case over the last two years have been reported in Legal Times.
Howes left the office in 1995 and is now a partner at the San Diego-based firm Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins LLP. A receptionist at the Houston office, where Howes has been working on a class-action suit against Enron, said yesterday that he was out of the office.
A receptionist at the firm's San Diego headquarters said she would e-mail Howes and his secretary in an attempt to reach him for comment. John Hundley, a Washington lawyer who has represented Howes, could not be reached yesterday by phone at his office or by e-mail.
Card, Edwards and Rice were sentenced to long terms in prison. But under the agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys, all three men are likely to complete their sentences sooner than they could have expected a decade ago.
Card, 39, and Edwards, 34, will still stand convicted of murder, but second-degree murder instead of first-degree premeditated murder, according to court filings in the case. Rice, 39, allegedly the lookout, was convicted of aiding and abetting murder, but that felony murder charge will be thrown out, leaving him with only a weapons conviction.
With credit for good time, allowed under the sentencing system in place when he was convicted, Rice will be out soon after the agreements are executed by Dixon next month, said his attorney, Sandra Levick. "I am delighted that Mr. Rice will very soon be free," she said in a statement.
Levick, a lawyer in the D.C. Public Defender Service, who has worked on the case for several years, said many important questions remain unanswered.
"I am troubled that there will never be a full public reckoning of the purposeful misconduct by Howes that undermined the fairness of this and other trials," she said.
Asked whether the agreement was an acknowledgment that misconduct by Howes had tainted the case, Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, issued a statement explaining the decision.
"In the interests of fairness and justice, an agreement to a reduction of sentence was, in our view, the most practical and reasonable way to resolve this matter, given the uncertainty of having to possibly retry cases that are more than 10 years old," Phillips said. "It is important to note that most of the defendants' convictions remain and they are still serving significant sentences."
||Truth in Justice