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The government’s successful pursuit of one of D.C.’s most notorious criminal gangs may be in jeopardy because of allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, according to court records. Lawyers for three convicted kingpins of the Newton Street Crew, a gang that terrorized Northwest Washington in the early 1990s, are asking U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson to order new trials or free the prisoners. Recently unsealed court records indicate that some witnesses or informants, in exchange for their testimony, may have received improper benefits — including easier access to drugs, alcohol, and girlfriends, as well as cash deposited in their jail bank accounts or given to relatives. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen something like this,” says John Carney, a longtime D.C. attorney who represents Anthony Goldston, one of the gang leaders. Carney declines to elaborate and refers a reporter to the court record. An 86-page report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which spent 22 months investigating the government’s handling of the case, remains under seal. And most of the action in the habeas corpus proceeding, including a hearing April 30, is taking place behind closed doors. But even a brief review of the court record suggests there’s more to come. Robert Chapman, the prosecutor now handling the case, referred calls to a spokesman. “Because there is ongoing litigation pertaining to this matter, some of which is under seal, we are precluded from addressing or responding to the allegations at this time,” wrote U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis in an April 30 statement to Legal Times. “It goes without saying that this office would never condone acts of prosecutorial misconduct by its Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Whenever it is determined that a matter was handled inappropriately, we will take the necessary steps to prevent its reoccurrence.” The Newton Street busts were among the city’s most highly publicized in the early part of the decade, when a series of brutal drug-related murders plagued the District. Among the more gruesome crimes was the murder of three men whose heads were bound, mummy-like, in duct tape before they were shot. A task force of federal officers and local police later arrested more than two dozen members of the gang and charged several of them with RICO/conspiracy, kidnapping, murder — including the duct-tape killings — and drug-related offenses. Gang leaders Mark “Markie” Hoyle, John “Dirty John” McCollough, and Anthony “Ghost” Goldston were convicted after a 51/2-month trial in which former crew members testified against them. In 1995, Judge Jackson sentenced the men to life without parole. An appeals court affirmed their convictions in 1997. According to court papers filed earlier this year by the government, one of its witnesses, Robert Smith, raised questions in February 1996 about misconduct by witnesses during and after the main Newton Street trial. Smith made allegations about the “possession and/or use of alcohol, marijuana and sexual contacts in July [or] August 1995.” At that time, Smith did not tell authorities about heroin use or improper payments to witnesses, two other allegations that have surfaced in the case, according to the prosecutors’ memo. Ironically, G. Paul Howes, who was the lead prosecutor in the case, told The Washington Post in 1994, “The only way we can prove these kinds of drug-organization killings, the only way, is by the credible use of cooperating witnesses, who are also being held accountable down the line.” The Justice Department began its investigation of prosecutors Howes, Lynn Leibovitz, and Jeffrey Ragsdale a little over three years ago, according to court papers filed by the government. The OPR report is under protective order, but a person familiar with the case says Leibovitz and Ragsdale, who both continue to work at the U.S. attorney’s office in the District, did not take part in any wrongdoing. U.S. Attorney Lewis, in her statement, expressed “complete confidence in the performance, conduct and integrity of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lynn Leibovitz and Jeff Ragsdale and is confident they have done nothing improper.” Howes, who left the District in 1995 and works as an associate in San Diego’s Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, did not return calls for comment. Howes was at the center of another controversy a decade ago. In 1988, a local defense lawyer complained to then Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler that Howes had contacted her client without the lawyer’s consent, a violation of bar ethics rules in New Mexico, where Howes was licensed. In court filings, Howes wrote that the suspect had reached out to him, not the other way around. The dispute mushroomed as Justice Department officials maintained that state bar authorities could not investigate or discipline federal prosecutors, an argument that was rejected by the D.C. Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court. Since leaving the government, Howes has not been the subject of any disciplinary action by the California state bar, according to the bar’s Web site. The government stood by Howes during the bar discipline litigation. He had prosecuted a number of other complex drug and murder trials, including one involving disgraced D.C. police officer Fonda Moore. “Paul is masterful at conducting complicated investigations and is extraordinarily effective in the courtroom,” a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office told Legal Times in 1994. “Paul is a highly ethical attorney, and he has our office’s complete support.” Today, defense lawyers for the Newton Street leaders are counting on the contents of the OPR report and additional information they are seeking from the U.S. attorney’s office to help overturn their clients’ convictions. The three leaders and a fourth Newton Street crew enforcer involved in the current scuffle, Mario “Black Mario” Harris, may never be released from prison, even if the defense strategy works. In the early 1990s in Chicago, after the government’s prosecution of some 50 members of the ElRukn gang fell apart amid allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and lax supervision of government witnesses, 13 of the defendants got new trials and many more pleaded guilty in exchange for lesser sentences. Only four were freed. For now, the Newton Street lawyers will take their chances. Says Jensen Barber, attorney for the lead defendant, Hoyle: “We’re going to have to wait and see how this all turns out.”

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