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For a grieving father, a ‘manifest injustice’ in court after his son’s slaying

Tom Marmet, left, with his sister, Sally, and parents, Betsy and Roger Marmet, in September 2018. On Oct. 24, 2018, Tom Marmet was shot and killed in the 1200 block of 17th Street NE. (Family photo)
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Roger Marmet’s son, Tom, was “a bright shining light who believed in the value of every person, no matter what they’d done or where they came from,” his father recalls. After finishing college, the 22-year-old aspiring social worker joined a volunteer program run by the charitable group So Others Might Eat (SOME) and was assigned to a job-assistance center for recovering drug addicts.

A little before 6 p.m. on Oct. 24, 2018, having finished another day at the center in Northeast Washington, Tom Marmet was at the wheel of his Jeep Liberty, headed home for dinner at SOME’s Gandhi House, the group home he shared with fellow volunteers. The drive took him past a BP gas station at 17th Street and Bladensburg Road NE in the city’s Trinidad neighborhood.

Roger Marmet, laden with grief and frustration, would later write, “While the bullet that smashed through his car window and killed him wasn’t intended for him, it was fired into moving traffic with the premeditated intent to murder others.”

The admitted gunman, Barry Marable, then 22, was on the east side of 17th Street when he fired four pistol shots, targeting someone at the BP station more than 100 feet away, on the west side of the busy, four-lane thoroughfare, according to police and Marable’s recent plea of guilty in D.C. Superior Court. One of the 9mm slugs went through Tom Marmet’s neck, right to left, as he was driving by.

He died in minutes.

Now, with Marable’s sentencing set for April 1, Roger Marmet, a D.C. restaurateur, describes himself as “broken and crushed by the justice process,” meaning how the case has been handled by prosecutors and the court. In return for Marable’s pleading guilty to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter, the U.S. attorney’s office agreed to the dismissal of a lengthy indictment against him, including a charge of first-degree murder.

“They’ve devalued and disrespected my son,” Marmet, 59, said in an interview after a hearing Nov. 19 at which he implored D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz to reject the deal.

Because the U.S. attorney’s office rarely enters into a plea agreement without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the victim or the victim’s survivors, Marmet’s denunciation of the bargain as it was being finalized in court that day was highly unusual. His remarks to the judge were first reported by the D.C. Witness website.

“The U.S. attorney’s office has chosen to give up and walk away and discount what happened in this case,” Marmet wrote in a statement to Kravitz, who nevertheless accepted Marable’s plea of guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Kravitz had the discretion to throw out the deal if he considered it unjust.

Afterward, Marmet said: “It’s a weird thing, because even if somebody gave him a hundred years in prison, the impact is no different on us. There’s a hole in our lives every day, of missing our son, that cannot be filled.”

First-degree murder in the District is punishable by up to life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 30 years. In 2019, prosecutors offered Marable a plea deal for second-degree murder, also punishable by up to life, but with no mandatory minimum. The median prison term for ­second-degree murder in the District in 2020 was 19½ years, according to the D.C. Sentencing Commission.

Marmet said he and his wife were “a-okay” with the second-degree murder proposal. But Marable, who initially agreed to the deal, turned it down at the last minute.

Then, in July this year, prosecutors offered him a more favorable bargain, for voluntary manslaughter — even though they had vowed in court that they would not do so after he backed out of the earlier deal. In D.C., voluntary manslaughter carries a prison term of up to 30 years, with no mandatory minimum. The median sentence for that offense in 2020 was eight years.

Citing the months-long, pandemic-related halt to jury trials in Superior Court and the resulting mountain of stalled cases, Marmet said he thinks prosecutors are “playing a numbers game” to “clean out the backlog” by offering plea bargains that are too generous to refuse, even though jury trials recently resumed.

In almost any courthouse, plea deals grease the wheels of justice. If a trial had to be held for every criminal defendant, the system, already slow, would grind to a virtual standstill. Marmet said he realizes that an overwhelming majority of cases are resolved by bartering, but he called Marable’s deal “a covid discount.”

The U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement that it “analyzes many factors in plea discussions” and that “the pandemic was not a factor in the decision-making in this case.” A spokesman declined to comment further on Marable’s deal.

The D.C. Public Defender Service, which represents Marable, also declined to discuss the case.

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Roger Thomson “Tom” Marmet, who got an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Vermont in 2018, had planned to return to college to study social work, according to his father, who owns the Roofers Union restaurant in Adams Morgan. Before going back to school, he wanted to spend a year in SOME’s volunteer public-service program. At the time, his mother, Betsy, was an art teacher for the group.

Spurred by their son’s death, Roger and Betsy Marmet this year founded the nonprofit Peace for D.C., which raises private donations to help fund community-based anti-violence initiatives in the city.

As for Marable, he had no adult convictions for violent crimes when he was arrested Dec. 28, 2018, two months after the shooting, and charged with first-degree murder. He told homicide detectives that he had “whipped the gun out” and fired across four lanes of rush-hour traffic because he thought an enemy of his, sitting in a car at the BP station, was about to shoot at him, according to a police affidavit filed in court.

In 2019, before offering the plea deal for second-degree murder, prosecutors spoke with the Marmet family and explained why second-degree was an acceptable outcome, given the nuances of homicide law and that Tom Marmet had not been shot deliberately.

“It made sense to us,” Roger Marmet said, “because of the uncertainty of a trial, because of sparing us as a family from having to go through a trial, and because ­second-degree more closely fit the circumstances of the crime.”

Such discussions between the U.S. attorney’s office and a victim or a victim’s loved ones are important in deciding what kind of plea offer to make, said former prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, who was a homicide supervisor in the office for 10 years.

“We worked hard to keep families included in the process, so when it came time for us to talk with them about the possibility of a plea, they were comfortable with where we were going and why we were going there,” Kirschner said. He said he could recall only one family “truly objecting” to a completed plea bargain during his tenure.

“It happens, but it’s very, very rare,” he said. “I won’t say that every family was always thrilled with the nature of the plea offer, but we made it a priority to always communicate with them, to build a good relationship.”

Roger Marmet was in court Oct. 7, 2019, when Marable, scheduled to plead guilty to ­second-degree murder, abruptly changed his mind. A court clerk noted that “the government therefore withdrew its offer and stated that no further offers would be made.” Two weeks later, prosecutors obtained a nine-count indictment in the case, adding assault and handgun charges to the first-degree murder allegation.

Marable, it seemed, was headed for a trial.

Then the pandemic hit, all but paralyzing the court system.

“I’m not a lawyer,” Roger Marmet said, “but I know that legally the government cannot be bound” by a prosecutor’s comment that no new deal would be offered. Still, “they promised us they would never offer him a better deal than second-degree murder, and we just thought this is how it works: You give your word and you stick to it.”

He said he learned otherwise on July 14 this year during a video conference with prosecutors. “That’s when they dropped the bombshell,” telling the Roger and Betsy Marmet that Marable would be given a chance to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. If he took the deal, they said, the charges in the indictment would be dismissed.

“There were no options, no ‘unless you object,’ ” the father said. “It was: ‘This is what we’re going to do. It’s the best thing.’ ”

That day and in the weeks afterward, he kept asking why. “All they’d say was that circumstances have changed,” Roger Marmet recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what’s different with the circumstances?’ This went back and forth over emails, but we never got an answer. It was always, ‘Well, we can’t tell you everything.’ . . . I talked to people in [the D.C. police] who told me there were no different circumstances with the case.”

He said: “If you ask me, it’s the backlog. . . . I feel like, if we look back six months from now, the data will bear out that this backlog is making deals happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But they never said that to me.”

In denying that Marable’s deal was influenced by the pandemic caseload, the U.S. attorney’s office said that in all plea discussions, prosecutors weigh “the facts of the case, the evidence, relevant case law and concerns of the victim’s family.” A spokesman said the office “recognizes the sensitive nature of plea agreements and extends its deepest condolences to the family of Tom Marmet for their tragic loss.”

Roger Marmet showed up for Marable’s Nov. 19 plea hearing with a typewritten, 2,000-word statement, accusing prosecutors of trying “to sweep the facts under the rug,” of disregarding “the safety of our city” and of perpetrating “a manifest injustice . . . just to clean out the files and reduce” the number of languishing cases.

“This case has 26 witnesses, surveillance footage, abundant physical evidence, evidence about other incidents earlier in the month, and the defendant’s own full statement,” he wrote. “So what happened?”

He was able to deliver only some of his anguished remarks in the time available to him, before Kravitz turned his attention back to Marable, now 25, who remained seated at the defense table with his lawyer. To the sole count of voluntary manslaughter while armed, how did he plead?

“Guilty,” Marable replied.

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