Before leaving the federal bench this month, Senior U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin dropped a pair of bombshells on the U.S. attorney's office. The judge issued back-to-back opinions that found prosecutors acted vindictively in one criminal case and unwittingly relied in another on testimony from a since-discredited police officer.
The rulings, released within weeks of Sporkin's Jan. 14 retirement, give two inmates another chance at freedom. They also have created a stir in the defense community and could have an impact on other cases, lawyers said.
Sporkin, 67, stepped down after a 14-year judicial career in which he was known for his independent manner and sometimes controversial opinions. Defense lawyers said the two recent decisions reflect a long record of fairness and compassion.
"I think the defense bar is really going to miss him," said Reita Pendry, a supervisor in the federal public defender's office. "He has a basic sense of fairness and decency. I don't consider Judge Sporkin pro-defense. I consider him evenhanded."
One decision came in the case of Edward Maddox, a D.C. parolee who was acquitted last year of a federal firearms charge. After his acquittal, the prosecutor showed up at a D.C. Parole Board hearing and persuaded its members to revoke Maddox's parole--citing the very same facts already rejected by a jury. Sporkin said that was tantamount to trying Maddox twice for the same crime. He ordered a new parole hearing for Maddox and said the prosecutor's conduct was vindictive.
The second decision involves Raymond A. Jones Jr., who was convicted last year of a federal drug charge. Prosecutors presented expert testimony in that case from Johnny St. Valentine Brown Jr., then a leading narcotics specialist with the D.C. police department. Brown later resigned from the force after authorities learned he had been lying for years about his educational credentials. In light of those developments, Sporkin said that Brown no longer could be considered a credible government witness, that the conviction was tainted and that Jones must get a new trial.
Sporkin is the first judge to order a new trial in a case involving Brown, who testified as a government expert in thousands of matters during the past 20 years. Defense lawyers now can cite Sporkin's opinion in seeking new trials for their clients.
It is the judge's language in the Maddox case, however, that has drawn the most attention. According to Sporkin, Maddox has been jailed for more than three years for a crime he didn't commit and remains locked up because prosecutors overstepped their bounds.
Maddox, now 36, was on parole when he was arrested in April 1996 in the 700 block of 46th Place SE by a police team that targeted the area because of pervasive crime and drug trafficking. Police, who jumped out of their vehicles to question numerous suspects, said they saw Maddox drop a set of keys that turned out to be for a nearby rental car. A search of the car turned up drugs and a gun and led prosecutors to charge Maddox.
The case first went to trial before Sporkin in September 1996 and ended with a hung jury. The panel reported that it was split 10 to 1 in favor of acquittal; the 12th juror was excused because of illness. Sporkin then released Maddox from jail pending a new trial.
The second trial took place in February 1997 before U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene and ended with Maddox's conviction. He has been jailed since but kept the matter alive through an appeal. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the jury's verdict in October 1998 and ordered a new trial, holding that Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Murphy made inappropriate comments during her closing arguments by suggesting that police officers who weren't called as prosecution witnesses would have aided her case.
That set the stage for a third trial last April, again before Sporkin. This time, a jury voted to acquit Maddox after defense lawyers vigorously challenged the accounts of police officers called to the stand by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Dixon.
Sporkin expected Maddox to be released from jail immediately, but that didn't happen. Instead, the D.C. Parole Board convened a hearing in May to determine whether Maddox had violated his parole. Unlike a jury, which convicts based on guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the Parole Board decides cases based on a preponderance of the evidence and will revoke parole if it seems more likely than not that a violation occurred.
Maddox had been released on parole in 1992 after serving eight years in prison on robbery, attempted robbery and gun charges. The Parole Board decided to revoke his parole after a rare appearance by Dixon, the prosecutor, who gave his account of the evidence against Maddox and participated in the questioning of some witnesses.
Parole Board members wrote that they believed Maddox knew that drugs and a gun were in the car. They played down the jury verdict, saying the jurors were unaware of Maddox's past. The parole revocation means Maddox could be imprisoned until 2004.
After the board's ruling, defense attorney Mary Manning Petras asked Sporkin to order Maddox's immediate release, saying Dixon acted out of "prosecutorial vindictiveness."
Although Sporkin agreed with the assessment of Dixon's conduct, he ordered a new parole hearing by an independent examiner instead of freeing Maddox outright. His ruling never mentioned Dixon by name and instead targeted the prosecutors' office. He said he was appalled that three supervisors approved Dixon's visit to the Parole Board.
"While the Department of Justice has the responsibility to protect the citizens of this nation against those who pose a threat to the safety of the community, it must do so within the reach of the Constitution," the judge declared in his 23-page ruling.
He said the U.S. attorney's office showed "a lack of a basic sense of decency and fairness," adding: "It has put an individual on trial three times. The individual has now been incarcerated for over three years with respect to a crime in which a jury found him not guilty. Not satisfied with depriving an individual of over 1,000 days of liberty for a crime a jury found he did not commit, the Department of Justice retaliates by prosecuting the Defendant for committing the same crime before the . . . Parole Board."
The D.C. corporation counsel's office, which represents the Parole Board, is likely to appeal Sporkin's ruling, and Maddox remains incarcerated. Channing D. Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment on the matter. But in court papers, prosecutors defended the actions of Dixon and the Parole Board.
Sporkin's decision in the Brown matter also could be appealed. It is at odds with a decision rendered in another case by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who denied another convict's bid for a new trial. Hogan found that the evidence against Gregory Williams was so overwhelming that Brown's testimony made no difference.
But Sporkin found that Brown's testimony was pivotal in the case against Raymond Jones Jr., saying Brown tied the case against the 27-year-old Northwest Washington man together with his account of the mechanics of the drug trade. Brown, who testified at other trials that he had a doctorate in pharmacology, did not discuss his credentials in the Jones trial. But because authorities later learned that Brown has no such degree, Sporkin said his credibility was shattered as a government witness.
In typical Sporkin fashion, his ruling commented on its potential ramifications.
"The Court is mindful of the problem now facing the government in the many cases where Detective Brown gave expert witness testimony on the drug trade in this city," Sporkin wrote in an eight-page decision.
"The government is concerned that a grant of a new trial in this case may have a precedential effect in those other cases. This Court is permitted only to consider this case, on the facts before it."
CAPTION: U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin retired after a career in which he was known for his independent manner and sometimes controversial rulings.