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Colbert I. King

Missing Facts in the Magbie Case

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page A23

Respect seems hard to come by for Jonathan Magbie, the 27-year-old quadriplegic who was dispatched to the D.C. jail by a Superior Court judge for 10 days for simple possession of marijuana. Magbie died five days after being placed in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Yesterday The Post published a letter from Rufus King III (absolutely no relation), chief judge of the Superior Court, who responded to a Post news story, an editorial and two of my columns ["Another Unnecessary Death in D.C.," Oct. 9, and "A Son's Death, A Mother's Unanswered Questions," Oct. 16] concerning Magbie's tragic death. Judge King said he felt it necessary to provide information about the late Jonathan Magbie that had not been included in some of The Post's coverage.

The judge recounted that at the time of his arrest, Magbie had cocaine in his pocket and had a gun in his possession, and that there was marijuana in the car. The judge also detailed the charges handed up against Magbie by a grand jury: carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm, possession of ammunition, possession of a prohibited weapon (a machine gun), possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana.

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A Son's Death, a Mother's Unanswered Questions (The Washington Post, Oct 16, 2004)
Another Unnecessary Death in D.C. (The Washington Post, Oct 9, 2004)
Guns, Gloves and a Bad Day in D.C. (The Washington Post, Oct 2, 2004)
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Would that Judge King had shared all of the facts at his disposal.

Had he done so, the public also would have learned that the prosecution dropped all of the gun and cocaine charges against Magbie and, instead, offered him a guilty plea for marijuana possession, which Magbie accepted because it was consistent with his guilt (he had bought the marijuana and had someone place it under his seat in the car). Magbie assumed responsibility for his conduct.

Judge King might have also noted that Judge Judith Retchin, who sent Magbie to jail, knew that he could not have put a gun in the car because of his disability. Judge Retchin acknowledged as much when she sentenced Bernard Beckett, Magbie's co-defendant and driver of the car, on Sept. 20. Beckett pleaded guilty to carrying a pistol without a license and possessing an unregistered firearm. Retchin said to Beckett: "I know from the facts in this case that you and your co-defendant [Magbie], who is a paraplegic and unable to move and control items, were driving around in a car with a loaded gun. [Judge Retchin misstated his condition. Magbie was barely five feet tall, a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, and needed a motorized, chin-operated wheelchair to move around.] And I understand that at the time of his arrest and your arrest, [Magbie] told you to put the gun on him. Someone had to put the gun on him because he couldn't manipulate the gun."

So the gun charges, Judge King might well have told you, ended up with Beckett. Judge Retchin sentenced Beckett to one year in jail for carrying a pistol without a license with all but 10 days suspended, and a one-year suspended sentence on the charge of possessing an unregistered firearm.

As for the cocaine charge, Judge Retchin noted during Magbie's sentencing that neither he nor Beckett "has pleaded guilty to the cocaine, but I understand cocaine was found in your coat." Again, unmentioned in Judge King's letter was the fact that Magbie was not convicted of any cocaine charge.

But maybe it was enough for the chief judge to repeat unproven charges against Magbie without explaining their ultimate disposition.

Oh, how I wish that the court's attention to public records was as meticulous. I sought, for example, to learn how many other similarly situated first-time offenders have been given jail sentences in D.C. Superior Court for possession of marijuana. Court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday: "The court does not compile any aggregate disposition of sentencing data."

Too bad; it would be nice to know. In sentencing Magbie, Judge Retchin referred to a pre-sentencing report claiming Magbie had said that using marijuana made him feel better. The report, the judge said, also stated that Magbie probably would not stop using marijuana because he didn't believe there was anything wrong with it. "As long as it's against the law," she told him, "you're not permitted to do it, Mr. Magbie."

I don't know whether it's true that marijuana helps control the spasticity and chronic pain associated with quadriplegia, as Ryan Grim of the Marijuana Policy Project asserted in an e-mail this week. Neither can I accept or challenge Grim's claim that marijuana, while not a curative treatment, was an ameliorative one that helped relieve Magbie's symptoms. It is, however, clear that Judge Retchin considered more than the marijuana charge in sentencing Magbie.

She told Magbie that she had decided against giving him straight probation because while he did not plead guilty to having the gun -- as did his co-defendant Beckett -- she considered it "just unacceptable to be riding around in a car with a loaded gun in this city. . . . I believe under all the circumstances here, the appropriate sentence is ten days in jail," Judge Retchin declared.

So the gun charges to which Beckett pleaded guilty -- the gun charges that the prosecution was unable or unwilling to prove against Magbie and that Magbie never accepted as part of his guilt -- were used by Judge Retchin against Magbie. The law allows that, Chief Judge King said in his letter. That reasoning was enough to put him in jail, where his life ended.

There's so much in this case to regret.

More than a year before Magbie appeared before Judge Retchin for sentencing, he had started to turn his life around, according to Shuaib B. Neel of the Concerned Muslims of Annapolis. Neel told me in a phone interview on Thursday that Magbie had been attending classes faithfully since April 2003, except when prevented by illness. As a young believer, Neel said, Magbie was an inspiration to all.

Judge and jailers? Well, perhaps not all.


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