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A convicted murderer facing possible life in prison wants to be the latest to benefit from the controversy surrounding embattled former D.C. prosecutor G. Paul Howes. Howes is the former assistant U.S. attorney accused of inducing witnesses to testify by improperly offering them money or favors in a series of notorious drug cases in the 1990s. Last week, James Johnson, who has spent 16 years in prison for killing a small-time drug dealer, asked the D.C. Superior Court to set him free or grant him a new trial because of “outrageous governmental misconduct” on Howes’ part. Nine other defendants who made similar allegations against Howes received reduced prison sentences after his misconduct came to light. In his motion, Johnson claims that Howes misled the jury about deals that the government made with witnesses in his 1989 trial. While Howes “present[ed] his witnesses as people who had nothing to gain from their testimony,” Johnson claims that, in fact, all five witnesses benefited from their cooperation. And one witness, years after the trial ended, allegedly received nearly $1,000 from Howes as a reward for her testimony in Johnson’s case. In seeking relief for Johnson, his lawyer, Sandra Levick of the D.C. Public Defender Service, appears to be banking on evidence in earlier cases that shows Howes had a history of bending — and at times breaking — the rules to keep his witnesses happy. “The problem you have in this situation is that so many allegations have been confirmed that he has taken steps to please witnesses,” says Francis Carter, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder and a former director of the Public Defender Service who is not involved in Johnson’s case. “That acts as a cloud for other allegations with regard to this particular prosecutor.”
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Levick, who has requested an evidentiary hearing, declines to comment. D.C. defense lawyer Plato Cacheris, who is representing Howes in an ethics investigation launched by the D.C. Bar, says he is unaware of any new filings regarding Howes’ time as a prosecutor, but that Howes will deny these new allegations just as he has denied the previous ones. Howes, who is now a partner in the San Diego and Houston offices of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, did not return calls for comment. Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, also says he does not know about the new filings but that his office will not comment on any pending litigation. A HOWES HISTORY LESSON In the mid-1990s, Howes prosecuted some of the District’s most high-profile narcotics and homicide cases. He won convictions of some of the city’s most notorious drug dealers and violent gang members at a time when Washington was in the throes of a crack cocaine epidemic. The federal racketeering cases against Washington’s Newton Street Crew were among the biggest and most complex criminal prosecutions Howes handled as an assistant U.S. attorney. As the lead prosecutor, Howes helped the police and federal agencies build the cases against the drug gang that resulted in two dozen convictions and multiple life sentences for the gang’s leaders. But it was his treatment of witnesses during the three Newton Street trials that cast a pall over the successful prosecutions. Shortly after Howes left the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in 1995, a tip from one of his informants led to an internal Department of Justice investigation, which concluded that Howes improperly paid dozens of government informants from a fund that was designed to compensate witnesses for their time spent testifying. There were also allegations that Howes extended special privileges to informants waiting at the federal courthouse to testify, including allowing them to make long-distance phone calls and to have visits from friends and family. Some of the informants also said they had access to drugs and alcohol and that guards allowed them to have sex in the waiting rooms. According to a report by the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, Howes, over the course of two years, authorized more than $140,000 in payments to 132 witnesses. Some who received the vouchers had a tenuous connection to the Newton Street trials, while others had virtually no connection at all. The money also went to incarcerated witnesses, in violation of federal law, and to the friends and family of other informants. In his motion, Johnson claims that Lenora Cole, a witness in his case, received almost $1,000 from the fund during the Newton Street trials and that Cole’s mother and son also received vouchers despite the fact that none of them had any involvement in the Newton Street trials. The motion claims that at the time Cole received the vouchers, in the fall of 1993 — four years after Johnson was convicted — she was wanted by police for having fled a halfway house in Colorado. In 1997, Howes told DOJ investigators that he authorized vouchers for informants who either came to the U.S. Attorney’s Office or called the office with information about the Newton Street case. He also authorized vouchers for witnesses who met with police officers outside of the office. In addition, Howes said he tried to provide money to informants when they were released from prison to help them get back on their feet. A year later, the DOJ’s internal report concluded that Howes improperly used federal witness money as his own personal slush fund. Still, the report found that despite the violations, witness testimony in the Newton Street cases had not been compromised. Ultimately, the DOJ decided not to press criminal charges against Howes because he had not benefited personally from the payments. But once the report was revealed to lawyers for Newton Street defendants, six of the defendants received reductions in their life sentences in deals with prosecutors. Last year three other defendants whom Howes prosecuted around the same time in an unrelated murder case received reduced sentences after it was learned that witnesses in their case were paid with Newton Street witness money. The PDS’ Levick represented one of the defendants in that case, as well. The results of the DOJ investigation, which were made public in December 2003, also led the D.C. Bar’s Office of Bar Counsel to begin its own investigation of Howes. The results of that investigation have not been released, and Bar Counsel Wallace “Gene” Shipp Jr. declined to comment on the status of that probe. THE JOHNSON CASE In 1989, Johnson was convicted along with another man named Willie Bullock for the killing of Bernard Smith, a fellow drug addict and small-time dealer. During Johnson’s trial, Howes presented five witnesses who all claimed to have seen or heard the argument between Bullock and Smith and who identified Johnson as the man who shot Smith on Bullock’s behalf over the proceeds from a drug sale. All of the civilian witnesses who testified were admitted drug addicts and all had their own troubles in the court system at the time they testified against Johnson, according to his motion. Despite the precarious legal situations of the witnesses, Howes told the jury that only one of the witnesses, Donald Fields, made a deal with the government in exchange for his testimony. The other four, including Cole, he said during the trial, did not ask for any type of deal, nor did they receive one. “Ladies and gentlemen, you heard one witness that had a deal struck. Only one witness who had a deal struck for his testimony here. And that was Donald Fields,” Howes told the jury, according to a transcript that was excerpted in Johnson’s motion. “There was no deal struck with Zanton Brown. There was no deal struck with Brenda Coates for exchange of her testimony. Zanton Brown was on her way to a drug treatment program. She served 14 months. There was nothing we could offer her. Lenora Cole with her attitude, didn’t want anything, didn’t ask for anything, got herself in her Colorado drug treatment program. And Linda Young, she’s on the street. She didn’t need to be. None of them wanted to be here.” But, Johnson’s motion says, that statement was not true. Fields, Brown, Coates, and Cole all ended up in an in-patient drug treatment program called Stout Street in Denver and were placed on probation pending the completion of their treatment, despite the fact that they were all facing jail time for drug charges. Cole entered Stout Street before Johnson’s trial began, and the other three were sentenced to Stout Street shortly after it ended. Young had her probation terminated. According to Johnson’s motion, in an unrelated case the year after Johnson’s trial, Howes admitted to U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina that he had helped informants get accepted into the Stout Street program. In that case, he told the judge that he had connections to Stout Street and that witnesses were accepted there based upon his recommendation. In addition, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed Howes during the course of the internal DOJ probe of his alleged misconduct in the Newton Street case, he identified Cole as a witness he had helped get into “a drug treatment program in Denver.” According to Johnson’s motion, that statement is in direct conflict with what Howes told the jury at his trial. “Any promise that is made before the case is being tried has to be disclosed,” says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law. “Even if the deal is implicit or explicit, the fact that these people are facing their own charges should be made available.” But Stephen Saltzburg, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, says the ethical line can be fuzzy when there is no explicit deal. “There are a lot of witnesses out there who hope that they might get help from the prosecutor if they testify,” he says. “Then if the prosecutor decides they were helpful and he may want to give them a break, they can do that.” But it is important, he says, that “prosecutors should never create the impression [of impropriety].” That was exactly the reason that Thomas DiBiagio, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland who is now a partner at Beveridge & Diamond, says his prosecutors were only allowed to make formal offers in writing. It was for everyone’s benefit, he says. “There were no winks or nods, because a side deal could be devastating.”


Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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