Judge Tried to Keep Athlete's Drug Test Quiet
Ex-Redskin All but Denied Substance Use Despite Court's Help
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page B01
A D.C. Superior Court judge went out of her way to help former Redskin George Starke keep his positive drug test under wraps, only to have him later go before television cameras and all but deny any drug problems.
Starke, 55, who as an offensive lineman was one of the team's original "Hogs" during the 1970s, ended up in court after police found crack cocaine in a car he was driving. He was stopped by police May 14 in Northeast Washington after police noticed he was not wearing a seat belt. He pleaded guilty to a possession charge but has publicly insisted that the drugs were not his.
Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin conducted key parts of Starke's court hearings May 27 and June 15 at the bench -- out of earshot of nearly everyone in the courtroom. Recently obtained transcripts show that she and the attorneys privately discussed his positive drug test and ways to minimize the public attention the case would get.
The drug test had come back positive after Starke's arrest, according to a transcript of a bench conference May 27. The transcript does not make it clear when the test was performed or what drug was involved. "This is a possession case," the judge privately told the lawyers that day. "His tests are positive."
At a follow-up court hearing the morning of June 15, Mitchell-Rankin made a private offer to attorneys during another bench conference. "You can talk to me about scheduling this in a way that minimizes public exposure," she told the attorneys as they tried to figure out when to go forward with the guilty plea.
"I can control what time we do it," the judge said, adding that she could even try to clear the courtroom "The only thing I'll have to say is that I want everybody to leave."
She did not clear the courtroom, however, when the parties returned that afternoon. Starke then pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of possession of crack cocaine and agreed to be assessed for possible drug treatment. He is due back in court Monday for sentencing.
Standing outside the court June 15, soon after his guilty plea, Starke told reporters that the cocaine in the car was not his and that he pleaded guilty only to spare his family the ordeal and expense of going to trial. Asked whether he had ever used drugs, Starke said he would not comment, but he left the impression that he had not.
"I never told the judge I did drugs," he said that day. "She didn't ask me that, and I did not say that. I was charged with possession of cocaine."
He predicted that a drug assessment ordered by the court would find that he was not in need of treatment.
Ted J. Williams, an attorney for Starke, said the judge acted appropriately in her handling of the case. "I do not believe that Mr. Starke was treated differently than any other citizen," he said.
A spokeswoman for the court said neither Mitchell-Rankin nor Chief Judge Rufus G. King III would comment on the case because it is still a pending matter.
Since Starke's public remarks, the U.S. attorney's office has filed a motion to revisit the plea, saying that "almost immediately after entering his plea," Starke "made statements to the press effectively asserting his innocence."
Whether Starke crossed the line and effectively renounced his plea, as the government contends, will be up to Mitchell-Rankin to determine.
Sympathetic as she may have been to Starke's public image, Mitchell-Rankin is known to take a hard line with drug offenders. She could give Starke probation and eventually expunge the conviction from his record. Or she could sentence him to up to 180 days in jail and fine him up to $1,000.
"As long as he's using, he's got to get himself clean," she said at the bench during the May hearing, adding, "He's no exception. If he's got a problem, he needs to get himself clean."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company