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Death penalty nixed in D.C. murder trial

Defendants also facing drug charges

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Justice Department will not seek the death penalty against three men accused of multiple murders and running a violent drug gang in Washington, prosecutors said in court Friday.

The decision to forgo capital punishment against Mark Pray, Kenneth Benbow and Alonzo Marlow came after months of deliberations inside the Justice Department.

In closed-door meetings, attorneys for the three men sought to convince prosecutors not to seek the death penalty if they are convicted on murder and various drug charges. After a status hearing in federal court in Washington in which they announced the decision, prosecutors declined to comment on the deliberations.

Though prosecutors at the U.S. Attorneys Office and Justice Department make recommendations, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ultimately decides whether to seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors say Mr. Pray was the head of a violent drug ring based in the Barry Farms neighborhood of Southeast Washington. In considering the death penalty, the killing of Crystal Washington, 44, almost certainly figured prominently.

She was fatally shot in 2009 about 14 blocks from the U.S. Capitol in the 1400 block of Maryland Avenue Northeast. Authorities soon learned that Ms. Washington was set to testify within days in a big D.C. drug case. They think her killers wanted to keep her quiet.

Despite the decision against seeking the death penalty, the upcoming trial of what prosecutors call the "Pray Organization" ranks among the major drug and conspiracy cases in federal court in Washington over the past decade.

The trial is expected to start in January and last at least four months. Two others who were not facing the possibility of the death penalty, Timothy Moon and Randolph Danson, are also being tried in the case.

Already, the defense has filed papers asking U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer to suppress wiretaps and other evidence in the case.

Among the defense arguments, attorneys argued that the FBI concealed information about ongoing crimes by a confidential informant drug dealer, who was cooperating with investigators as they sought evidence against Mr. Pray and others.

The informant, who is not identified in court papers, was presented in an FBI affidavit as someone with "a checkered past who was now reliable," defense attorneys argued in court papers. However, an affidavit didnt mention that even when he was cooperating with the FBI, the informant "continued to carry on a narcotics business."

During the investigation, the FBI used the informant to make undercover drug buys, but later discontinued doing so because of his "possible commission of criminal conduct," according to a separate affidavit. Prosecutors have not yet filed a response to the defense motion to suppress the wiretap evidence.

In a separate defense motion, attorneys also want the judge to suppress evidence seized during a series of raids in March 2010, arguing the search warrants lacked probable cause.

Death penalty cases are rare, but not unheard of, in the nations capital, where residents have voted against capital punishment in local prosecutions. But federal authorities are not bound by the referendum, and they occasional bring death penalty cases in federal court.

In 2007, a federal jury rejected the death penalty against Larry Gooch, convicted of carrying out murders as the enforcer of the so-called "M Street Crew" in a neighborhood not far from the National Arboretum. Hes serving life in prison. The case was tried in Judge Collyer's courtroom.

In a different drug conspiracy case a few years earlier, a jury split on giving the death penalty to Kevin Gray, convicted in 19 murders, and Rodney Moore, convicted in 10 murders. Both received life in prison. In 2004, Tommy Edelin, convicted leader of the so-called "1-5 Mob," was sentenced to life in prison after a jury rejected giving him the death penalty over murder and racketeering convictions. He, too, is serving life in prison.

The hearing Friday, once prosecutors disclosed their plans not to seek the death penalty, was mostly devoted to scheduling of pretrial motions. Mr. Pray's attorney, James G. Connell III, also asked to leave the case because he's been appointed to a job at the Office of Military Commissions, representing a detainee at the detention facility for terrorism suspects at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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