Hundreds of years in prison without killing anyone?

Back in 2005, a serious amount of corruption was discovered inside the ranks of the Baltimore Police Department, centered around the Public Housing Drug Unit. They were tasked with identifying and arresting known drug traffickers, almost all of whom were associated with the city’s many gangs. It’s always sad when you discover cops that have gone bad, but some of these officers were particularly egregious. A couple of them set up their own private enterprise to enrich themselves by shaking down drug dealers, taking their money and “product” (which they later resold to other dealers) in exchange for not arresting them. Fortunately, their scheme was uncovered and the officers were put on trial and convicted. But the sentencing phase went in an unexpected direction. The two former officers were sentenced to a combined 454 years in prison. Now, more than fifteen years later, their attorneys are arguing that the sentence was grossly excessive and they should be released. (Baltimore Sun)

Two notorious former Baltimore Police officers serving hundreds of years in federal prison for shaking down drug dealers are seeking to be released, arguing their sentences wouldn’t hold up today.

William King and Antonio Murray, public housing drug cops taken down by the FBI in 2005, took their cases to trial and in 2006 were sentenced to staggering prison terms of 315 and 139 years, respectively. At his sentencing, King described learning to commit crimes as a form of on-the-job training, and blamed immense pressure to reduce crime as the reason he and some colleagues went bad.

The judge at the time called the sentences “grossly disproportionate” to their crimes, and Congress has since passed sentencing reforms that, if the officers were convicted today, would have led to significantly lesser sentences, their attorneys say. The men were convicted of robbery, extortion, and drug and handgun offenses.

Just to be clear, I’m not going to come out here and argue that these former officers should be viewed as sympathetic figures or merit any sort of special treatment. Even if it’s true that they were “indoctrinated” by senior officers when they joined the force and were under the impression that lots of cops were doing it, they knew in their hearts that what they were doing was wrong. They were breaking the laws that they had taken an oath to enforce. If they somehow didn’t realize that then they were too stupid to be police officers anyway.

With that said, while they shouldn’t be getting any special treatment, they also shouldn’t be treated extraordinarily worse than the criminals they were supposed to be arresting, either. Robbery, extortion, drug dealing, and trafficking in illegal guns are all very serious charges that merit jail time. I will even grant you that when police officers are found to be conducting themselves in this fashion, it’s a serious breach of public trust that compounds their offenses and could merit sentences closer to the maximum range.

But William King was sentenced to 315 years. Antonio Murray got 139 years. That’s not just excessive… it’s preposterous. Your average gang member convicted of drug trafficking receives a sentence of five years, of which they typically serve two years and four months before being released according to the Bureau of Justice. Illegal trafficking of firearms will get you a minimum of five years in most states, with the possibility of longer terms for repeat offenders. Extortion can carry a bit longer stay in the crowbar hotel.

But very often, these sentences are served concurrently. Even if we tack on a bit more for the breach of trust by a law enforcement officer, these guys probably shouldn’t have gotten more than twenty years total. And with time off for good behavior, they probably would have been up for parole by now. I’m not sympathetic to their attorney’s claim that COVID makes it too dangerous to be behind bars. I haven’t supported such release for other violent criminals during the pandemic and there’s no reason to make an exception to the rule here.

315 years is just ridiculous, however. Even the judge in their trial called the sentences “grossly disproportionate.” Sentencing guidelines adopted after their convictions would have seen them getting far less time rather than essentially getting life in prison without parole. I’m not saying they should be cut loose today, but a fresh look at those sentences in court should definitely be on the table. If they wind up doing more than twenty years, I think that’s going to simply be too much.