Novel defense strategy — we’re in Morocco — fails in Montgomery courtroom

September 20, 2013

For the past several years, Lamont Butler has espoused beliefs that even those closest to him can’t understand.

The 29-year-old claims to be a “Moorish American National,” with ancestors who were here long before the formation of the United States. The entire continent, in Butler’s telling, remains part of a vast Moroccan empire, rendering Moors like him the rightful heirs to huge swaths of land.

A new group of people listened to Butler’s beliefs this week — 12 Montgomery County jurors — and on Friday passed judgment over one of the most bizarre burglary cases in the region in years. The question they faced: When Butler slipped into a $6 million, unoccupied mansion in Bethesda this year and claimed it as his own, how many crimes, if any, did he commit?

Their answer: Five.

Butler now faces perhaps his most daunting audience yet, Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Terrence McGann, who indicated after the verdict that however zany Butler’s beliefs may be, his actions constituted a threat. McGann said that the same goes for Butler’s co-conspirator and girlfriend, Sakita Holly, 34, who was tried and convicted with him.


Lamont Butler (Courtesy of Prince George's County Police Department)

“Under your set of rules, every house is fair game, you own the entire United States, you own the oceans, you own anything you want. And that’s not how a free, orderly society works,” McGann said.

He ordered that Butler and Holly be held in jail and receive psychological evaluations ahead of their Nov. 14 sentencing.

They were then led off in handcuffs, passing several supporters. “Let everybody know,” Butler said over his shoulder. “Barack Obama, Eric Holder. Everybody.”

Butler attracted law enforcement attention this year because some of his beliefs are similar to the wider “sovereign citizen” movement that has adherents clogging court offices with endless paper filings and, in isolated incidents, turning violent.

“They declare themselves above the law,” Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy said. “A clear message has to be sent.”

The verdict against Butler and Holly — reached in less than two hours — was the latest chapter of a case that began in January. Police were called to a 35,000-square-foot estate along a winding, tree-lined road near the TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm golf course. The mansion was on the market. In the driveway, the police ran into Butler, who had a convoluted yet simple message: This is my home.

Butler, who represented himself in court, explained how he ended up there during a sweeping closing argument that capped the four-day trial.

Wearing a suit and tie with his long dreadlocks, Butler spoke for 42 minutes seated at a defense table behind two tiny flags he’d set up, using a pair of inverted cups as little stands. One of the flags was Moroccan, the other American.

“Good morning,” he told the jurors. “First off, I would like to say excuse my voice, because it’s very deep and heavy. So I don’t want you all to think I am talking at you with force.”

Butler spoke of graduating from high school, going off to college, obtaining a job with the federal government. Still, by 2006, he said, he was looking for answers in his life — and found them in studying Moorish American tenets. “My family and friends, when they saw what I was studying, they thought I was a part of some cult.”

Butler acknowledged going to a tax office in Montgomery County to explain his right to the property. “I claimed the land and everything on the land. Why? Because the land is ours.”

Mixing together case law, treatises on treaties, a reference to the movie “Wall Street” and the fallacy of deeds, Butler told jurors how he entered the mansion — through an unlocked back door. He called friends and family members to come check the place out. And why not? Its marble floors, 12 bedroom suites, six kitchens and indoor swimming pool were enough to host grand political fundraisers in the past, drawing the likes of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Detectives caught on to Butler and Holly’s brief stay in the mansion, eventually leading to charges against each for breaking and entering. Butler also was charged with attempted theft for trying to steal the home, among other counts.

He was convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary, first-degree burglary, fourth-degree burglary, attempted theft and identity fraud.

“It seemed like they were making up their own laws,” a 68-year-old juror said after Friday’s verdict. He asked to not be named to protect his privacy.

Prosecutors called Butler’s father and a cousin — both of whom had gone to check out the house — to testify.

In an interview afterward, his father, Maurice Whitfield, called Butler a regular kid who studied in college and was headed for success but stopped working to pursue his beliefs. Now, Whitfield said Wednesday with regret in his voice, “He’s going nowhere fast.”

Damon Butler, a cousin, said in an interview that Butler is at peace with himself and is not a danger.

“This is not a threat guy,” he said. “This is not a guy who is trying to get 100 people behind him. This is not the guy to make an example of.”

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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