Eight men convicted in a gangland murder and drug dealing conspiracy in Baltimore urged the U.S. Supreme Court this week to review and set aside their convictions, saying their constitutional right to have family and friends attend their trial was violated when the federal judge limited attendance to prevent witness intimidation.
In papers filed with the justices, counsel for the convicted Trained To Go gang members said family and friends must get preference over other spectators under a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
Lead attorney Steven M. Klepper cited the high court’s 1948 decision in In Re Oliver that a defendant is “at the very least entitled to have his friends, relatives and counsel present.”
But U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake effectively banned family and friends from the defendants’ joint trial when she limited to 25 the number of public seats available in the 100-seat courtroom in Baltimore, stated Klepper, the convicts’ counsel of record at the high court.
Courtroom personnel, in fact, sent family and friends away when they arrived too late for the first-come, first served seating, added Klepper, of Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.
In August, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Blake’s restriction and the convictions that followed, saying the judge had imposed “reasonable limitations” on public attendance based on legitimate concerns regarding potential intimidation by gangland spectators.
The 4th Circuit’s published opinion made no reference to a constitutional preference for family and friends, essentially saying the right to a public trial makes no distinction among spectators.
Klepper, in the convicts’ petition for Supreme Court review, stated that the 4th Circuit stands alone among federal appeals courts in holding that family and friends need not get seated first under the Sixth Amendment – an anomaly that only the Supreme Court can correct.
“The 4th Circuit did not overlook this issue; it did its best to avoid it,” Klepper wrote.
“To understand the cost of avoiding the issue, consider why the district court (judge) saw no need to address the mistrial motions” the defendants filed based on the alleged Sixth Amendment violation, Klepper added. “There was no 4th Circuit precedent telling the district court to prioritize and protect access for defendants’ family and friends. But for this gap in circuit law, the district court would have known to hit the brakes, hold a hearing, build a fuller record, and make specific findings.”
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar has until Nov. 14 to reply to the convicts’ request for Supreme Court review. The high court has not stated when it will vote on the request.
The appeal is docketed at the Supreme Court as Montana Barronette et al. v. United States, No. 22-5829.
In addition to Barronette, TTG’s leader, other gang members on the appeal are Dennis Pulley, Timothy Floyd, John Harrison, Brandon Wilson, Linton Broughton, Taurus Tillman and Terrell Sivells.
A U.S. District Court jury found them guilty on Oct. 31, 2018, of drug and racketeering conspiracies that involved murder, armed robbery and witness intimidation. Their sentences ranged from 25 years to life.
“Montana Barronette led one of the most violent gangs in Baltimore City,” then-Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said in a statement after the leader received a life sentence on Feb. 15, 2019. “He and his fellow gang members terrorized the Sandtown neighborhood (of west Baltimore) in order to profit from the drug trade.”