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Government witnesses in the successful prosecution of one of the city’s most notorious drug gangs are claiming that they received payments and enjoyed access to drugs, pornographic materials, and sex while in custody — sometimes inside the U.S. District Court building in Washington. The details came to light in recently released court papers filed by lawyers for leaders of the Newton Street Crew, a violent drug gang that once plagued neighborhoods in Northwest D.C. The gang members are challenging their 1994 convictions and life sentences. The lawyers are moving for new trials based on information provided by the U.S. attorney’s office itself. They argue that this evidence, had the defense known about it earlier, could have changed the course of the trial. The court papers were unsealed in November 1998, but were made public just last week. The first witness to come forward, Robert “Blue Tip” Smith, relayed information to a lawyer for his brother, defendant John McCollough. Later, Smith approached members of the U.S. attorney’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The government soon alerted U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had presided over the trial, in a memo furnished to defense lawyers. Since then, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has conducted a 22-month investigation into the conduct of three assistant U.S. attorneys who worked on the case. The department produced an 86-page report last year. Many documents, including the OPR report, remain under seal on Judge Jackson’s order. He has yet to hold a hearing testing the strength of the allegations. U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis said last week through a spokesman that she is prohibited from commenting on the details of ongoing litigation. But, in a written statement, she said, “[T]he litigation schedule calls for the filing of summary judgment motions, the outcome of which may shed some light on the truth and accuracy of the allegations. [However,] as a general principle, this Office does not condone acts of prosecutorial misconduct by its Assistant U.S. Attorneys, and whenever it is determined that a matter was handled inappropriately, we will take the necessary steps to prevent its reoccurrence.” The new trial motions describe at least one witness, Smith, as saying he received payment for his testimony in the form of witness vouchers while he was incarcerated and awaiting sentence for his own role in the gang’s operations. Payments to people who are incarcerated are highly unusual and would violate Justice Department policy. According to court papers filed by the government in February, 11 people, including testifying witnesses and their friends and relatives, received payments. Lawyers for the Newton Street defendants currently are seeking more information on those people and the money they were paid. “Smith also admitted consuming alcoholic beverages in the government witness room during the trial in the presence of a police officer,” wrote an attorney for one defendant, Mario “Black Mario” Harris, in a motion. Other witnesses, too, have spoken of drinking alcohol and using drugs while waiting to testify on the sixth floor of the courthouse, according to the Harris memo. Shelton Brooks Seldon “admitted receiving sex on three occasions in the Courthouse and a fourth time at the Alexandria City Jail,” from where he conducted at least one drug deal by phone. He later pleaded guilty to the drug offense. Another witness, Donald Price, said he brought drugs into the courthouse but denied using them, according to the new trial motions. During the course of the main Newton Street trial, marijuana was found in a sixth-floor witness room, according to the documents. Harris’ request for a new trial also refers to a fourth witness, Lazarro Santa Cruz, whose attorney said that videotapes and other pornographic material were given to witnesses by the government. G. Paul Howes, the lead prosecutor in the case, left the U.S. attorney’s office in 1995. Howes, now an associate at San Diego’s Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, did not return a call for comment. One person close to the case defends the government’s performance, and Howes’ in particular. “I don’t think anything immoral or improper was done,” says the person. “The relatives were definitely paid, but the relatives were witnesses. They provided information constantly.” The Newton Street case resulted in life sentences plus additional prison time for Harris and gang leaders Anthony “Ghost” Goldston, Mark “Markie” Hoyle, and “Dirty John” McCollough for murder, conspiracy, and drug-related offenses. Lawyers for the men declined to comment on the case, but in court documents, Harris’ lawyer, Vincent Jankoski, called the Newton Street case “a clone of the El Rukn trials,” a group of Chicago gang prosecutions later found to be rife with government misconduct. “It is almost as though the El Rukn litigation was put in a giant photocopy machine, reproduced, and mailed one time zone east,” wrote Jankoski. “In both the El Rukn and Newton Street cases the prosecution, at the very least, through lax security arrangements, tacitly condoned the improper activity.” POTSHOTS D.C. residents who support marijuana use for medical reasons are smoking mad. They’ve now been waiting more than five months for U.S. District Judge Richard Roberts to rule on their time-sensitive lawsuit. The locals are seeking to force the Board of Elections and Ethics to release and certify the results of last year’s Ballot Initiative 59, a measure that would make marijuana use legal for seriously ill residents. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) sparked the controversy when he attached a rider to the city’s 1999 appropriations bill that barred the District from spending any public funds on the vote count. The rider expires Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year ends. If Judge Roberts does not rule before then, the issue would become moot. The wait has been a frustrating one for some participants in the case. “I think five months is long enough in a case like this,” says Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the National Capital Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing the plaintiffs, along with the D.C. Corporation Counsel. A spokesman for the Justice Department, which is defending the rider, says he anticipates a ruling in the near future. Judge Roberts declines comment on the case through a court clerk.

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