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Prince George's District Judge, Criticized for Releasing Murder Defendant Sean Sykes, Is Known for Strong Muslim Faith, Fairness

Acquaintances say District Judge Hassan A. El-Amin, criticized for releasing murder defendant Sean Sykes this month, is known for his fairness and a strong Muslim faith.
Acquaintances say District Judge Hassan A. El-Amin, criticized for releasing murder defendant Sean Sykes this month, is known for his fairness and a strong Muslim faith. (Courtesy Of Hassan Ali El-amin)
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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

In the courtroom, Judge Hassan A. El-Amin is known for delivering stern but respectful lectures.

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Some defendants get the "Rayful Edmond" speech, where they hear about the notorious drug kingpin serving a life sentence for running the area's largest crime organization. Others get the "this is why you are going to jail" speech.

"He'll say something like, 'Your parents couldn't correct you, your teachers couldn't correct you, so now you're faced with a whole correctional system. You have to be corrected,' " said Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery, a longtime friend of the Prince George's County district judge.

Although El-Amin's March 5 decision to release murder defendant Sean M. Sykes without bond has drawn criticism from police and prosecutors, acquaintances said his approach on the bench is informed by his Muslim faith, and several defense lawyers described him as a fair judge.

"My clients walk away feeling like they had a fair hearing, whether they leave through the back door wearing handcuffs or walk out the front of the courthouse," said criminal defense attorney Antoini Jones.

Sykes was arrested Thursday on a drug charge, a week after being released.

Those critical of El-Amin's decision in the Sykes case could point to no specific cases that would prove a broad pattern of leniency toward defendants. Last March, however, El-Amin set bond at $50,000 for Arlen C. Garrett, another defendant charged with second-degree murder.

District judges in Prince George's rarely release murder defendants before trial. The few who are released usually post a high bond -- generally no less than $500,000.

Garrett, then 22 and enrolled at Howard University, was accused, along with another man, of killing a teenager in Hyattsville over drugs. In court, Garrett had strong support from his father, an architect, and his mother, a teacher.

After El-Amin set bond, Garrett's family paid 10 percent to a bondsman and Garrett was released.

Garrett appeared at all court hearings and stayed out of trouble. He ultimately pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and a gun charge and was sentenced in January to eight years in prison.

Defense lawyer Christopher Griffiths cited the case as an example of a judge exercising discretion properly. "Some judges have knee-jerk reactions when they see someone charged with murder," said Griffiths, who represented Garrett. "That's not what we want from members of the bench."

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