- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Opening arguments began yesterday in the case of a D.C. man facing a rare death penalty trial in the District over charges he took part in five killings and shot at a police officer while a primary enforcer for a PCP ring.

Citing evidence from 6,917 phone calls, dozens of undercover drug purchases and statements from cooperating witnesses, Assistant U.S. Attorney Darlene Soltys portrayed Larry Gooch as the enforcer for the violent drug gang known as the M Street Crew in Northeast.

“There were murders and there was an awful lot of drug activity,” she said of the gang, operating for years in the neighborhoods just south of the National Arboretum. “His role as a primary enforcer allowed them to thrive.”

But defense attorney Thomas Heslep said Mr. Gooch, 27, didn’t kill anybody. He balked at the description of his client as an enforcer.

“He is not a member of the drug conspiracy,” Mr. Heslep said.

Both sides agreed the stakes are huge for Mr. Gooch.

If convicted, Mr. Gooch could face the death penalty in a case that is already renewing the debate about capital punishment in a city that in 1992 rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin.

D.C. law bars the death penalty. But because Mr. Gooch is charged in federal crimes, he can face capital punishment because the U.S. justice system permits the death penalty.

On the first day of jury selection last month, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter to the U.S. attorney’s office criticizing the decision to seek the death penalty in the Gooch case.

Yesterday, Mr. Gooch, dressed in tan slacks, a blue sweater, a shirt and tie, listened as Miss Soltys outlined the prosecution’s case.

On Aug. 1, 2000, Miss Soltys said, Mr. Gooch and three others carried out a home-invasion-style robbery, breaking into the apartment of drug dealer William Cunningham, 27.

Mr. Gooch fatally shot Cunningham in the face, while another gang member fatally shot a 19-year-old man who was at the apartment during the incident, prosecutors said.

Miss Soltys also said Mr. Gooch fatally shot a 34-year-old drug user whom prosecutors identified as Miguel Miles on Sept. 13, 2002. The shooting was meant to silence Mr. Miles after he showed up high on M Street to buy drugs, she argued.

Finally, the prosecutor said, Mr. Gooch carried out the fatal Feb. 21, 2003, shootings of Calvin Cooper, 40, and his girlfriend, Yolanda Miller, 32, whom gang members suspected of stealing drugs and cooperating with law enforcement.

“Larry Gooch grew up on M Street. He had a motto: Live for the block, die for the block,” Miss Soltys told jurors.

But Mr. Heslep argued there is no evidence linking Mr. Gooch to any of the crimes. He said prosecutors have relied on statements by cooperating witnesses trying to get a break in their sentencing.

The defense attorney also said that Mr. Gooch didn’t sell PCP and wasn’t around for much of the time prosecutors say the M Street Crew operated.

Prosecutors said the gang operated from 1997 to 2004. Mr. Heslep said that for at least two years during that period, Mr. Gooch was at the Oak Hill Youth Center, the D.C. government’s juvenile detention center.

Three men charged as leaders in the M Street gang — John L. Franklin, George “Shug” Wilson and William Dee Robinson, a former D.C. Public Schools bus driver — are serving life terms.

Death penalty trials are rare in the District. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, only two capital murder cases have proceeded to trial in federal court in the District. In both cases, defendants were given life in prison without parole.

In 2003, a federal jury deadlocked on whether to recommend the death penalty for Murder Inc. gang members Kevin L. Gray and Rodney Moore. Gray was convicted in 19 murders and Moore was found guilty in 10 murders. The deadlock meant both received life in prison without parole.

A federal jury in 2004 rejected the death penalty for the 1-5 Mob leader Tommy Edelin, who was convicted in four murders in the prosecution of the Southeast gang.

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