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Baltimore County sheriff’s deputy got unusual perks with plea deal in detainee rape case

“I thought it was a very good result for my client,” says Brian G. Thompson, the attorney for Morton S. Winkler Jr. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A Baltimore County sheriff’s deputy who was charged in 2020 with raping a female detainee received an advantageous plea deal late last year that scrubbed much of his criminal case from public view using an unusual expungement process.

The deal allowed the deputy, Morton S. Winkler Jr., to enter an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge of having sexual contact with a person in custody — a charge that relates to consensual sex, though the victim in the case said she did not consent — and removed the original rape charge from Maryland’s public case search system.

Winkler, as part of the deal, also received no jail time, did not have to register as a sexual offender and avoided formally admitting guilt because of the Alford plea, which is similar to a no-contest plea.

A lawyer for the victim called the plea deal “an inexplicable and unwarranted gift,” especially considering Winkler was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was in his custody.

“There is no greater violation of duty than that, yet Winkler got an Alford plea, escaped a rape conviction, avoided jail and sidestepped being registered as a sex offender,” said the lawyer, Loyd Byron Hopkins.

“Simply monstrous, and appalling,” Hopkins said. “My client is offended.”

The Daily Record is not identifying the woman because the newspaper does not typically name the victims of sexual assault. She accused Winkler in 2018 of digitally penetrating her for about a minute while she was in custody at the Baltimore County Circuit Court building. Under Maryland law, digital penetration can be considered rape.

A civil lawsuit over the allegation has been settled, according to Hopkins, who declined to provide details. Had the case proceeded, the Alford plea could not have been used as an admission of guilt against Winkler.

Winkler maintains his innocence, said his lawyer, Brian G. Thompson.

“I thought it was a very good result for my client,” Thompson said of the plea deal. “He maintained his innocence, but he also understood that if he were convicted (of rape), his guidelines would have been five to 10 years in prison, and as a 55-year-old man, that’s a big number.”

Winkler was 55 at the time of his November plea hearing and has since turned 56. Thompson said Winkler would not wish to comment for this story.

The Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office, which took over the case after the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office recused itself, declined to comment on the deal.

Assistant State’s Attorney Amy Ocampo summarized the evidence against Winkler at his plea hearing.

According to that summary, the victim alleged that Winkler began asking her inappropriate questions while she was in the courthouse basement after a hearing, waiting for a transport back to an Anne Arundel County detention center.

The woman told investigators that Winkler escorted her into a holding cell and looked around for cameras before asking her to touch his penis and to show him her vaginal area. The woman, according to the recitation of facts at the plea hearing, replied that she felt uncomfortable.

Winkler then placed his right hand down her pants and penetrated her with his finger, the prosecution alleged. The woman reported the assault to a “trusted female corrections officer” when she got back to the detention center, Ocampo said, and an investigation followed.

Subsequent DNA testing recovered male DNA from a vaginal swab taken from the victim. The sample was consistent with Winkler’s DNA profile, the prosecutor said in court.

Winkler was indicted on a count of second-degree rape in January 2020.

While the initial charge against Winkler generated media coverage, his plea deal was cemented quietly and has not received public scrutiny.

At first glance, the plea agreement appears relatively standard: initially charged with second-degree rape, Winkler was allowed to plead to a lesser charge, in this case a misdemeanor count of law enforcement officer – sexual act with a person in custody.

A closer look, however, reveals differences from an average criminal case. Normally, when a defendant pleads to a lesser charge, the more serious charge is nolle prossed, or dismissed, but still appears on the public docket. Under Maryland’s expungement rules, defendants cannot expunge an individual charge from a docket that includes a conviction on another charge.

In other words, Winkler typically would not be able to expunge the rape charge because of his plea to the misdemeanor on the same docket.

But his plea deal went further. Prosecutors agreed to entirely dismiss the docket that contained the rape charge and the misdemeanor — which would allow the whole docket to be expunged, and the rape charge to disappear — and re-filed only the lesser charge against Winkler so that the public docket would not show the more serious sexual assault allegation.

The result is an “empty” docket that begins on the date of Winkler’s plea, Nov. 19, 2021. Any filings in Winkler’s case from before that date, including the original indictment, have been wiped from public view because they are part of the hidden first docket.

The details of the arrangement were laid out at Winkler’s plea hearing and sentencing:

“It’s part of your plea agreement that the state will not object and you will in fact be allowed to have the other matter (the rape charge) expunged, notwithstanding the fact that there’s technically going to be a subsequent conviction to it,” Thompson said in court. “It’s part of your plea agreement that you’ll be able to have that expunged so it won’t follow you around for the rest of your life.”

Thompson, Winkler’s lawyer, told The Daily Record that he has worked out similar plea agreements in previous cases involving sexual offenses. He said he developed the idea of using plea deals to wipe out entire dockets 10 to 15 years ago in order to combat the “unfair nature of the expungement statute” because it does not allow for the removal of individual charges.

Hopkins, the detainee’s lawyer, said he had never seen such an agreement during his 24 years of criminal practice.

“It floored me when I learned about it,” he said.

Other lawyers agreed that the creation of a second docket as part of Winkler’s plea deal appeared unusual. State Senator Jill Carter (D-Baltimore city), who has advocated for expungement laws in the legislature, said the use of a second docket appeared to be a “manipulation” of the current system.

It also remains unclear why Winkler’s first docket, which contains the rape charge, has already been removed from Maryland’s case search system.

The Daily Record reviewed the hidden docket, which was still available at a public access kiosk at the Baltimore County Courthouse during the week of Jan. 10. Though records in the case showed that Winkler applied for expungement soon after his plea hearing, the docket did not reflect an approval of that request by a judge.

When The Daily Record asked why the hidden docket was not visible in case search, Bradley Tanner, a spokesperson for the judiciary, said there was no record of the docket.

Tanner did not respond when a reporter noted that was impossible because the case had been listed as a “related docket” on Winkler’s public docket. The “related docket” notation disappeared from the public docket after The Daily Record inquired about case.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Andrew Battista accepted Winkler’s plea and sentenced him to one year of incarceration suspended and two years of unsupervised probation, as requested by the defense and the prosecution.

Winkler pleaded no contest to the charge under a relatively new law in Maryland that made it a misdemeanor for law enforcement officers to have sexual contact with a person in custody. Prior to the passage of that law, officers could claim that in-custody sex acts were consensual to defend against sexual assault charges.

The 2018 law, which was expanded in 2021, did not go so far as to define this type of sexual contact as a sexual assault, though advocates argue that by definition, sex between a detainee and a jailer cannot be consensual.

New York state, for example, passed a law in 2018 that defined all sex in custody as rape.

Thompson said in an interview that he would have presented evidence suggesting that the victim invited the sexual encounter.

Winkler “maintains that he never touched her, but given the DNA evidence against him, he believed he was doing what was in his best interest” by entering a plea, Thompson said.

The lawyer also said that Winkler was placed on unpaid leave from his position as a sheriff’s deputy after being charged with rape, a felony. Thompson said Winkler had not been reinstated but also, to his knowledge, had not been fired.

The Baltimore County Sheriff’s Office did not return a phone message or email requesting comment.

Thompson also said he did not believe Winkler received favorable treatment in the case.

“I’ve represented many cops,” Thompson said. “They are typically prosecuted more harshly because the prosecutors are concerned about being accused of giving favorable treatment.”

Thompson said he has handled cases involving law enforcement officers in which the police union contributes to attorneys’ fees. He declined to say how he was paid in this case.

Winkler did not address the judge at his sentencing hearing in November.

The victim made a short statement.

“I no longer feel safe around male officers since I’ve been taken advantage of being in confined areas,” she told the judge. “I wonder why I had to go through this.”