WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled that the government did not have sufficient evidence in a Baltimore-based drug case to convict Vernon Ray of conspiracy to distribute drugs and killing while engaging in narcotics conspiracy.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also vacated Darrell A. Burrell’s conviction for killing while engaging in narcotics conspiracy that stemmed from the same Baltimore case, saying he was denied his right to have two lawyers represent him.
But the court let stand Burrell’s conviction on drug conspiracy charges. It also refused to overturn convictions of Andre A. Addison, who it called the leader of the Chapel Hill Gang.
“We are very pleased that the court of appeals ruled that Mr. Ray was convicted on insufficient evidence and that Mr. Ray’s convictions were overturned,” said Jennifer O’Connor, Ray’s attorney.
Officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment Thursday, saying they had not reviewed the court decision.
According to court documents, the Chapel Hill Gang transported drugs from New York and sold them in Baltimore, where they eventually got into a turf war with another gang, the Jefferson Street Boys.
Testimony indicated that the two gangs had long been rivals, starting with childhood disagreements and playground fistfights. Drugs came into the picture in 1994 and the turf wars began in 1996.
Ray and Addison were childhood friends and Ray’s brother was a member of the Chapel Hill Gang. But Vernon Ray never belonged to either gang, according to witnesses, who said he was “free-lancing with the Jefferson Street Boys” and “was neutral.”
The Jefferson Street Boys, thinking Ray was working with the Chapel Hill Gang, shot him sometime in 1994 or 1995. Two of Ray’s friends, including Addison, attempted to retaliate for that shooting, but failed.
After that Ray did not associate with the Jefferson Street Boys and continued free-lancing, according to the court, although the government did not establish at trial what “free-lancing” meant.
The shootings continued, with Burrell — described as the Chapel Hill Gang “enforcer” — killing rival Sylvester Snider in May 1996 at Addison’s direction. A month later, Addison was seriously wounded by the Jefferson Street Boys. Burrell killed Jefferson Street Boy Antwan Greer in retaliation later that day.
Burrell was jailed in connection with the Snider and Greer killings, during which time Addison paid his attorney’s fees and gave money to his family — evidence that he reaped some of the benefits of the drug money, the court said.
But the court said Ray’s involvement in the conspiracy started and ended on Sept. 7, 1997, when a Jefferson Street Boy shot a Chapel Hill Gang member who was a friend of Ray’s.
In response, Ray and some Chapel Hill Gang members got into a shootout with the Jefferson Street Boys. Ray was shot in the shoulder and Bernard Miller of the Jefferson Street Boys was shot and killed.
As a result of that shooting, Addison was convicted of distribution of cocaine as well as conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine and of killing while engaging in a drug conspiracy. Burrell and Ray were convicted on the two conspiracy counts.
Addison and Burrell got life sentences and Ray was sentenced to 262 months of jail.
But the appeals court, pointing to testimony that Ray was a free-lancer who was not involved in either gang, threw out his conspiracy convictions Wednesday. It said that Ray was simply acting as a lifelong friend during the Sept. 7 shooting, not a member of a criminal conspiracy.
“We conclude that the government presented insufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ray knowingly furthered the objectives of the cocaine distribution conspiracy,” the court wrote.
Burrell’s attorney said he was “very pleased” for Ray, but not for his client.
“Half a loaf isn’t satisfactory,” said Michael Daniel Montemarano, Burrell’s attorney. “Certainly, we are going to seek rehearing.”
Addison’s attorney, Noell Peter Tin, also said he will ask for a rehearing. But he was happy to see Ray’s convictions overturned.
“It’s shocking what happened to the guy,” Tin said. “There was no basis whatsoever for this guy to be convicted on conspiracy.”