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Justices deny Baltimore gang members’ appeal of family’s trial exclusion

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of eight men convicted in a gangland murder and drug dealing conspiracy in Baltimore who said their constitutional right to have family and friends attend their trial was violated when the federal judge limited attendance to prevent witness intimidation.

Without comment, the justices on Monday let stand a lower court decision upholding U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake’s order that limited to 25 the number of public seats available in the 100-seat courtroom in Baltimore. The limited seating resulted in family members and friends being turned away by courthouse security.

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.

In their failed bid for Supreme Court review, the eight Trained To Go gang members argued 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,” wrote Steven M. Klepper, the convicts’ lead counsel at the high court.

“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, added Klepper, of Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore. “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 waived the federal government’s right to respond to the gang members’ petition for review unless a response was requested by the justices. The request was never made.

The case was 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 were 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.”

The 4th Circuit upheld the convictions in U.S. v. Montana Barronette (et al.), No. 19-4123.