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Four men convicted of running one of Washington, D.C.’s most violent drug gangs had their life sentences dramatically reduced last week in the wake of alleged misconduct by the lead prosecutor in the case. Mark Hoyle, John McCollough, Anthony Goldston and Mario Harris were convicted in 1994 of drug conspiracy, racketeering and murder charges stemming from their roles in the Newton Street Crew, which operated a crack cocaine ring that stretched from Washington, D.C., through five states. All four were sentenced to multiple life terms. After the trial, a government witness claimed that the Newton Street convictions were secured through the testimony of informants — many incarcerated — who were given alcohol, drugs and sex for their testimony. There were also allegations that witnesses had been improperly paid or that their families and friends received financial benefits from prosecutors. What followed was a confidential Justice Department investigation, the trial judge’s recusal, allegations of misconduct in a related case, and finally a deal between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the defense team for lighter sentences. On March 15, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the men’s sentences, the government dismissed a number of the most serious charges, and the defendants were resentenced to conspiracy, drugs and weapons offenses. Hoyle and McCollough — the two alleged leaders — were sentenced to 23 years. Both received credit for the 10 years they’ve already served, meaning they are expected to be freed in 13 years. Goldston and Harris — who are also serving sentences from other D.C. Superior Court convictions — had their life terms cut to 18 years. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Chapman explained in court that the government weighed a number of different factors in agreeing to the new deals, including remarks by the trial judge, the criminal conduct of witnesses since the trial and the ages of the defendants. Though Chapman mentioned the Justice report, he never mentioned any misconduct on the part of the government. “In the interests of judicial economy, it was felt that it was in the best interest of the government and, in fact, all the parties involved, to end this litigation,” he said. Jensen Barber, who represented Hoyle throughout the 10-year ordeal, says a gag order imposed by trial judge Thomas Penfield Jackson prevents him from explaining why his client received such a drastic reduction. “The government didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing and they specifically denied any wrongdoing, but one has to read between the lines in this case,” says Barber, adding that there are other defendants from the Newton Street convictions whose cases should get another look. The other three Newton Street defendants were represented by Michael Lasley, William Garber, John Carney and Vincent Jankoski. At the end of the hearing, the defense team was asked to return to the U.S. Attorney’s Office all evidence they received from the government, including witness vouchers and a redacted version of the Justice report. The outcome means that the Newton Street case, once touted as a blueprint for bringing down violent drug gangs, will instead be remembered by some as one of the darkest stains on the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. While the Newton Street convictions unraveled over the past six years, the lead prosecutor, G. Paul Howes — the only prosecutor on the case whose conduct wasn’t publicly cleared by a 1998 Justice Department report — has been in private practice in California. Since 1995, Howes has been at the San Diego office of Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach and is currently involved in a major class action against the Enron Corp. Howes did not return calls seeking comment. Channing Phillips, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard Jr., disagrees with the assessment that Newton Street was an embarrassment. “We all have learned from our mistakes — and we’re not conceding that anything done here [was] grounds for a new trial,” Phillips says. “Since the Newton Street trial there have been a number of successful gang prosecutions. This was an unfortunate series of mistakes, but by no means do we see this as a dark stain.” As a result of the Newton Street case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office put tighter controls on how witness vouchers are used by prosecutors. CASE CLOSED? The investigation began in 1989 and focused on a group of elementary school friends who as young adults began operating one of the largest crack cocaine rings in D.C. They were dubbed the Newton Street Crew by cops and federal agents because much of their operation focused on dealing among two blocks of Newton Street in the city’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. They were also known for viciously killing rival dealers, and even each other. The U.S. Attorney’s Office monitored the gang for several years and in 1992 unsealed an indictment charging 26 crew members with crimes ranging from cocaine distribution to kidnapping to murder. The defendants were arrested and held behind bars, awaiting trial. A dozen members pleaded guilty to various charges, and their testimony was used against the four alleged leaders. After a five-month trial in 1994 that resulted in convictions on numerous counts against the four, Assistant U.S. Attorney Howes told The Washington Post: “[J]ustice was served. The community got back its neighborhood, and people who have committed some of the most brutal crimes in this city have been held accountable.” Robert Smith, a relative of McCollough who testified as a government witness, was the first to come forward with allegations of misconduct, according to court papers. In February 1996, Smith told the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that prosecutors in the case knew about or facilitated “possession and/or use of alcohol, marijuana and sexual contacts in July or August 1995″ by government witnesses in the federal courthouse. He also told about heroin possession by a government witness and informants being paid with witness vouchers months after the trial ended. The defense team claimed its own investigation turned up between 50 and 100 instances where government witnesses’ own conduct or the government’s interaction with them were dubious. Attorneys for the four defendants filed motions for new trials alleging that these illegal benefits and the government’s failure to disclose them tainted the verdicts. A two-year investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility focused on the conduct of the prosecution team consisting of Howes, Jeffrey Ragsdale and Lynn Leibovitz. The 86-page report was completed in February 1998 and was sealed by a protective order issued by Jackson. From that point on, nearly all of the proceedings and filings in the Newton Street case have been confidential. Only small portions of the findings have been released publicly — either from various court transcripts or by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which sought to clear its prosecutors’ names. In March 2000, Jackson recused himself from the case, later explaining in a written statement that he couldn’t fairly preside over the Newton Street matter any longer. He said the defense’s claims of misconduct were “nonfrivolous” and said the allegations “call into question the integrity of the entire prosecution team and could expose the lead prosecutors to criminal liability.” The Justice report “concluded that the lead prosecutor had misused hundreds of witness vouchers to provide financial benefits in substantial amounts to many relatives and friends of prosecution witnesses,” Jackson continued. Then-U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis asked Jackson to amend his statement, noting that Ragsdale and Leibovitz had been cleared by the Justice Department. Lewis also requested that Jackson change the sentence on criminal exposure from “lead prosecutors” to “lead prosecutor.” Jackson agreed to the changes. FURTHER DOWN THE SPIRAL Last year, Sandra Levick, an attorney at D.C.’s Public Defender Service, entered the fray. Levick filed a motion in the Newton Street case requesting the Justice report and other information. Levick claimed that since her client, Antoine Rice, had been prosecuted by Howes in D.C. Superior Court immediately prior to the Newton Street trial, she needed to review the information to see whether Rice’s prosecution was also tainted. In 1994, Rice was convicted along with two others of kidnapping and murdering a rival drug dealer. “We have obtained through independent investigation documentary evidence that Mr. Howes used federal Newton Street vouchers to pay witnesses who appeared in Superior Court to testify against Antoine Rice,” Levick wrote. The U.S. Attorney’s Office gave Levick some witness vouchers, but opposed the move on several grounds, including that Rice should first seek relief in Superior Court. Judge Kollar-Kotelly has yet to decide whether to give Levick’s client access to the confidential Newton Street material. In her brief, Levick also claims that the Justice report found that Howes committed “intentional misconduct” in the Newton Street case. Levick cites a January 2001 General Accounting Office report on Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility that spelled out a number of the office’s investigations. One of those, which has dates that correspond with the Newton Street investigation, states that the subject was a former prosecutor whose conduct was “potentially criminal.” Justice claimed that once the litigation was completed, it would decide whether its finding should be made public and referred to bar authorities.

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