WASHINGTON – In what a federal District judge has called an “unusual–if not bizarre” defense strategy, four Maryland men filed motions to drop charges against them, including some carrying the death penalty, in part, because their names were capitalized in court filings.
Although their attempt was unsuccessful, there are a small but growing number of instances where this same strategy has cropped up in courts across Maryland and throughout the country. Some of the lawyers interviewed for this article have likened the problem to a “virus,” spreading throughout the detention system.
The defendants in this case claim that by having their names typed in all capital letters, they are not represented as “flesh and blood” men and, as such, are not properly identified.
Willie Mitchell of Randallstown and Shelton Harris and Shawn Gardner, both of Baltimore, face capital murder conspiracy charges, as well as extensive prison sentences if convicted on racketeering, drug trafficking and armed robbery charges. Co-defendant Shelly Wayne Martin of Baltimore does not face the death penalty, but is subject to substantial prison time if convicted of similar racketeering and other charges.
The men engaged in these illegal activities, the indictment says, to fund Shake Down Entertainment, their rap music company.
Although the defendants had attorneys, they went against legal counsel to file these identical motions.
Judge Andre M. Davis denied their request on Dec. 19, 2005, and dismissed the defendants’ use of civil legal precedent under the Uniform Commercial Code on banking to refute the court’s right to try the case.
The four men refused to consent to the proceedings or sign anything, believing that this nullified the process, however, the judge ruled the civil defense was not applicable in criminal cases.
“If this were the case, it is hard to imagine that any indicted defendant would ‘consent’ to any proceedings against him, and the entire criminal code would be pointless,” Davis wrote.
The defense has been expounded by anti-government groups, the judge wrote, and Davis included an excerpt from one Web site in his opinion. It reads:
“There appears to be general misunderstanding by people in general as to the difference between a natural person and an artificial person. John Joseph Smith, is a natural flesh and blood person, created by God. JOHN JOSEPH SMITH, is a U.S. corporate artificial person, U.S. citizen, created by the government.”
Some lawyers are concerned about the ramifications of the defense strategy, even if it never is successful.
Gerard Martin, Harris’ attorney, foresees a legal nightmare if these disruption tactics become more widespread.
“What happens if every defendant in the country uses this?” Martin asked, “Where are we headed when everybody gets this disease, this virus?”
But, as Davis notes that while this strategy is “unique by conventional legal standards, the defendants’ arguments are not new.”
James Wyda, federal public defender for the District of Maryland, has seen similar defenses wend their way through the state system. He even warned Harris’ defense lawyer of this scenario months before his client filed the motion. Wyda has also had assistants working on a case of drug conspiracy charges whose defendant employed the same defense.
“It seems to be a product of our troubled pre-trial detention system here,” Wyda explained. “I am not blaming the client. It really is just a car wreck that I feel helpless to watch.”
The willingness to gamble on an unconventional strategy is especially worrisome, Wyda explained, as the stakes are particularly high in this case.
Martin explained that his client doesn’t see how this strategy works against his goals, by making it easier for the government to try the case.
Harris, as a part of his refusing to acknowledge the court’s authority, has attempted to fire Martin, but the judge did not approve the dismissal.
Martin said he must still try the case, but it will be that much more difficult without his client’s cooperation, he said. Normally, Martin would spend time working with his client, building his case, potentially presenting Harris’ entire life story.
“If I can’t speak to my client then how can I convince a jury not to sentence him to death,” Martin said. “They are getting themselves on a fast train to the death penalty.”