By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Lonny Baxter, the former University of Maryland basketball star caught last week with a gun a few blocks from the White House, was sentenced yesterday to spend the next two months behind bars after a judge rejected the prosecutor's recommendation for probation.
Baxter, who recently signed a pro contract to play in Europe, agreed to plead guilty yesterday, just a week after he was charged, in hopes that he would be released from jail so he could join his team in Italy for training camp.
Shackled at his wrists and ankles and clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, the 6-foot-8 Baxter said that a .40-caliber Glock found in his white Range Rover was his and that he had fired it into the air in the early hours of Aug. 16 in downtown Washington.
The sight of Baxter, 27, in the dock in D.C. Superior Court was not what anyone would have imagined a few years ago for the young man who led his hometown Maryland Terrapins to a national championship and who seemed to have a promising National Basketball Association career ahead of him.
Echoes of that exciting time in Baxter's life filled the crowded courtroom yesterday.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams, who led the 2002 team that won the national championship, appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf of Baxter. Dressed in a suit and tie and standing a few feet from his former center, Williams called Baxter a "hard-working individual" and praised him for his efforts with young people and his continued pursuit of his college degree, all of which made Baxter's actions so hard to understand. "Knowing Lonny, I was shocked," Williams told Judge Craig Iscoe.
Former Terps' teammate Juan Dixon, who went on to play for the Wizards, also weighed in, albeit not in person. Baxter's attorneys presented a letter from Dixon as a testimonial to his old teammate.
A bit too short to be a true NBA big man, Baxter never stayed on very long with any of the handful of NBA teams he played for, among them the Wizards. After finishing out last season with the Charlotte Bobcats, Baxter decided to return this season to Europe, where he had played before and where he hoped he could earn another shot at the NBA.
Baxter had been in trouble over guns once before. A couple of years ago, he was arrested in the District after he accidentally fired a shotgun in his Connecticut Avenue NW condominium. Baxter pleaded guilty in Superior Court to a misdemeanor firearms charge in that case, was placed on probation and was told to stay out of trouble -- and not just by the judge.
"I told him, basically, you can't be in those situations. You have too much going for you," Williams told Iscoe of his talk with Baxter after the 2004 arrest.
Apparently, Baxter stayed out of trouble -- until last week, just hours before he was to leave for Italy.
Baxter was celebrating his final night in Washington when was arrested, one of his attorneys, Richard Finci, told the court. Along with the Glock, Secret Service officers found Baxter's passport in the center console of his SUV, Finci said.
Baxter had apparently just left the Eye Bar on I Street NW with a friend, Francis I. Martin, when Baxter decided to fire off a couple of rounds from a gun he bought in Texas. Uniformed Secret Service officers on patrol near the White House heard the shots.
A passerby told the officers that shots had been fired from a white SUV near 18th and I streets NW. When police stopped the Range Rover, near 17th and K streets, they learned that it was registered to Baxter, who was driving. The officers said they saw two spent shell casings on the back floorboard. Baxter and Martin, 35, were ordered out of the car, and police found Baxter's gun.
Martin was originally charged, too, but those charges were dropped yesterday after Baxter made it clear he alone was responsible for the gun and for firing it.
With a sentence that will keep him in jail until the middle of October, after his team has begun its season, Baxter's professional fate is uncertain, said another of his attorneys, Harold Martin.
Entering yesterday's hearing, Baxter seemed to have a good chance at going home to Rockville and then to Italy.
In exchange for his guilty pleas, the U.S. attorney's office had agreed not to seek jail time beyond the seven days that Baxter already served and to dismiss the most serious charge if he stays out of trouble for the next year.
Baxter's attorneys asked the court to accept the recommendation of the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandi K. Garcia, and allow Baxter to move on. Baxter was eager, excited and overwhelmed at the prospect of going to Italy, to an unfamiliar place and a team that he was expected to lead, and all those feeling somehow bubbled into something inexcusable, Finci told Iscoe.
"There's no explanation for this," Finci said. "There was obviously no intent to harm any person. It's really just an effect of emotions being out of control."
Defense attorneys presented a letter from the general manager of Baxter's Italian team, Montepaschi Siena, who offered to provide the court with regular reports on Baxter's performance on and off the basketball court.
Finally, the judge heard from Baxter, who majored in criminal justice and criminology at Maryland and who is hoping to receive a bachelor's degree next year.
Baxter has been a local favorite since his basketball-playing days at three area high schools -- Silver Spring's Springbrook, Rockville's Richard Montgomery and Southeast Washington's Anacostia. He spent a postgraduate year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., to focus on academics before heading to College Park.
At Maryland, Baxter became one of the country's best big men, known for his quiet demeanor and consistent play. He averaged at least 15 points per game during his final three seasons.
"I'd like to first just apologize to the court, to the District of Columbia and also to my family, for the careless, selfish, stupid act that I committed," he told the judge.
Iscoe acknowledged Baxter's prompt cooperation with authorities but said he could not go along with the government's recommendation of probation.
The government had given Baxter a "great break" in conditionally dropping the most serious charge, Iscoe said. In sentencing Baxter for the other two charges to which he pleaded guilty -- possession of an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition -- he could not be so lenient, Iscoe said.
"There's no good reason for a person who's not working in law enforcement or presidential protection to be in possession of a loaded weapon within blocks of the White House, let alone to fire it into the air," Iscoe said.
Iscoe sentenced Baxter to about nine months in jail but suspended all but 60 days of that sentence, meaning that if Baxter stays out of trouble, he will not have to serve the remaining time. Iscoe also placed him on probation for 18 months, fined him $2,000 and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service.
"In imposing sentence," Iscoe declared, "I have to consider . . . not only your desire that your punishment not interfere with your basketball career but my responsibility to the citizens o the District of Columbia. . . . And I'm sorry, sir, because I recognize the serious consequences that this will have on your career, but you're the one that took the actions, you're the one that chose to purchase that gun, to load it, to carry it in your SUV and to fire it into the air, and you're the one that will have to suffer the consequences for your deliberate and intentional actions."
Staff writers Allison Klein, Ernesto Londoño and Eric Prisbell contributed to this report.