A federal grand jury indicted a Baltimore man yesterday in the arson deaths that wiped out a family of seven, a brazen crime that horrified residents and political leaders in a city struggling to control drug violence.
At a news conference in Baltimore, Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio said the defendant, Darrell L. Brooks, 21, could face the federal death penalty if convicted of seven counts of arson resulting in death.
Prosecutors will review the case and make a recommendation regarding the death penalty to DiBiagio, who in turn will make a recommendation to U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft -- a process that could take several months to a year.
Brooks also has been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder in state court -- charges that also could have brought the death penalty. But Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy said that she and DiBiagio decided jointly that federal authorities would have far more resources to prosecute Brooks.
Her office prosecutes hundreds of homicide cases and thousands of assaults annually, Jessamy said, adding that some homicide prosecutors have as many as 15 cases pending.
"When you have a death penalty case, [a prosecutor] can't have any other case," Jessamy said at yesterday's news conference. "The state's attorney's office appreciates the vast resources offered at the federal level."
Left unsaid was the perception among some law enforcement officials that Baltimore juries do not always deliver convictions, much less death sentences.
DiBiagio became irritated when reporters asked three or four times why the Brooks case is to be prosecuted at the federal, not the state, level.
"If you firebomb a house and kill seven people, that's a federal crime," DiBiagio said. "If that's not a federal case, what do you want us to be doing here?"
In other developments yesterday, a spokeswoman for the state's division of parole and probation said three employees have been disciplined for their failure to keep tabs on Brooks, who had been released from jail on probation a month before the fatal fire.
Brooks is accused in the Oct. 16 firebombing of a rowhouse in the 1400 block of East Preston Street, where Angela Dawson, 36, and her husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, lived with Angela's daughter and four sons.
Angela Dawson and the children -- ages 9 to 14 -- died in the fire. Her husband, severely burned, died in the hospital a week later.
Angela Dawson had angered drug dealers in her neighborhood by confronting them and reporting their illicit activities to police, according to published reports. Thirteen days before the fatal attack, a fire had been set in the Dawson home when two Molotov cocktails were tossed into it; that fire resulted in no injuries.
Police and federal officials believe that Brooks targeted the Dawson home in retaliation for Angela Dawson's efforts.
Brooks's attorney in the state case, public defender Jeff Gilleran, said he is waiting to see what evidence police used to arrest his client within hours of the fatal fire.
"We're very concerned about what type of information investigating authorities are relying upon to make an arrest so quickly in a case like this," Gilleran said. "There's always a danger they got the wrong guy."
In addition to the death by arson charges, the federal grand jury charged Brooks with three other counts in connection with the previous fire.
Brooks has a history of petty offenses and was in violation of his probation at the time of the fire.
Racine Windborne of the parole and probation division said three employees, whom she declined to name, did not make the requisite checks on Brooks or take action when Brooks did not immediately meet with his probation officer after his Sept. 10 release. Citing personnel laws, Windborne said she could not provide details of the employees' punishment.
Under the division's guidelines, she said, those employees should have known when Brooks would be leaving jail and should have instructed him to report to his probation officer.
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.