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Freeing Willie

Willie Featherstone is a sexual predator, but he keeps getting out of prison. A former law clerk and corrections employee wonders why

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On July 1, a criminal plea was taken in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Room 636, Courthouse East. It was a case common enough to rate no media attention whatsoever. A substitute prosecutor called the case at 2:09 p.m. She stood at the trial table with the public defender facing Judge Pamela White. The defendant was absent. At the time, the judge and the lawyers believed that the Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) had failed to transport the defendant. A postponement date was set.

Referring to the sentence she planned to impose, White said, “It’s my intention to make it concurrent with the parole retake.” Retake warrants, issued by the Maryland Parole Commission, are similar to violations of probation, which are issued by the courts. At the time of this crime, the defendant was in violation of his release from prison, and a warrant had been issued for his return to incarceration.

At 2:51 p.m. the defendant had been found, and the case was called again. A bald, stout, bespectacled African-American man of 54 dressed in DOC pale blue had joined the lawyers facing the judge. White set forth the terms of the plea agreement, which had clearly been worked out beforehand.

In exchange for pleading guilty to a sex offense in the first degree, the defendant would accept a sentence of 30 years, with all but 10 years suspended, and a period of 5 years probation upon release. Certain standard conditions of probation for sex offenders would be imposed. The judge addressed the defendant with special concern for his request for protective custody.

The public defender then took her client through the guilty plea litany, to ensure that he understood all the rights he was giving up in relieving the state of the burden of proving its case. The prosecutor read the statement of charges.

Late in the evening of May 10, 2009, the defendant had picked up a woman at East 24th Street and Greenmount Avenue. He asked her if she wanted to “party,” which would include crack cocaine. The pair eventually strolled to the 2500 block of Loch Raven Road, where an overgrown path strewn with debris leads uphill from the street to the cut beside the railroad tracks that pass over Loch Raven. A hundred feet up the path, the defendant “began to strike the victim in the head and face,” according to the charging documents.

He dragged her by the hair across the track into the filthy brush. He made her take off her clothes. He took off his clothes and forced the victim to perform fellatio and anilingus. He “began to masturbate and eventually ejaculated on the victim.” They put their clothes back on and walked back to Greenmount. The defendant set off toward parts unknown. The victim went home and called the police, who met her at Mercy Hospital after midnight and took her statement.

The victim identified the defendant from an array of photos of men similar in appearance. He was arrested May 15, 2009. Eventually the DNA taken from the rape kit at Mercy matched a criminal named Willie Featherstone, who lived only a few blocks from the railroad cut.

As evidenced on the video of the hearing available from the clerk’s office, Criminal Division, Baltimore City Circuit Court, White imposed the aforementioned sentence. At no point did she or either of the lawyers refer to the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines. This is a set of matrices adopted by the Maryland courts to encourage uniform sentencing, given the nature of the crime and the convict’s criminal history. There was no mention of Featherstone’s history whatsoever.

Five days later, on July 6, a man named Peter Levin died at his home in Cedarcroft. On Saturday, July 17, his mourners convened at the Stony Run Friends Meeting House to remember him.

Peter Levin was one of 26 first cousins, two of whom are Carl Levin, senior U.S. senator from Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Carl’s older brother Sander, the Michigan congressman who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means. Both of them came to the memorial service, and both were moved to tears. The Levins are a close family, and cousins are like brothers and sisters.

Peter and his wife were Detroit natives who happened to meet in Baltimore when they came here for law school. They built a fine life together here, raising three children. Peter’s surviving children and his widow spoke strong and tender words of tribute to a man who was still giving them, in a very real sense, great love and comfort. Peter had managed to live long enough to welcome into the world his first grandchild. His greatest accomplishment in a long and fruitful life was his family.

Sander Levin spoke of an unspecified “crisis” in Peter’s life. “Out of this crisis,” he said, “came this infinite compassion.”

There was hardly a mention of Trudy, Peter’s oldest child. There was certainly nothing said of why she was absent. Trudy Levin, age 15, was murdered in 1986 at a railroad cut that ran over Loch Raven just above East 25th Street. Her killer was a man named Willie Featherstone.

 

What follows isn’t a matter of 20-20 hindsight. Willie Featherstone’s case is simply an example of the institutional amnesia, laziness, and indifference that hound Baltimore’s way of delivering criminal justice. Criminal behavior isn’t rocket science. There is no better predictor of what a man will do than what he has already done.

I know what Featherstone has done. I was law clerk to the judge who tried him for Trudy Levin’s murder.

On Saturday, Aug. 30, 1986, Trudy Levin is a sophomore at Friends School living with her parents and siblings in Cedarcroft. Her friend Brian Jenkins calls her that evening and invites her to a movie at the Boulevard Theatre at 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue. Brian, 16, lives in the 2600 block of Saint Paul Street. Brian is what will come to be called “developmentally disabled.” Trudy agrees to meet him. Her mother Nancy watches her catch the No. 8 bus down York Road. Trudy’s parents expect to pick her up from the Boulevard at 11:30 p.m.

Willie Marshall Featherstone, 30, lives in the 700 block of East 23rd Street. He’s done state time for armed robbery and escape, he’s used drugs for most of his life, and he knows a boy from the neighborhood named Brian Jenkins.

Brian has a huge crush on Trudy, who’s been nice to him. He wants very much to impress her. He’s a kind of mascot at the Blackstone Apartments, at 33rd and North Charles streets. He’s free to roam the building, and he’s even found a vacant apartment with an unlocked door.

Brian and Trudy forget about the movies. Somewhere in Charles Village they meet Featherstone, who says he can get some drugs and suggests a party. He tells Brian how much he’d like to get next to Trudy.

Brian says he’s got a few dollars to spend, and that they can go to his grandmother’s apartment at the Blackstone. He and Trudy separate from Featherstone. They plan to meet later at the Blackstone. Trudy calls her parents from a pay phone.

At the Blackstone, they can’t get into the building. There’s no grandmother, no apartment, and no money. Brian is so frightened by Featherstone’s blatant interest in Trudy that he decides to go home. He leaves her with Featherstone, sitting on the floor of the lobby, at 11 p.m. Brian doesn’t call her parents. The next day they report her missing.

On Sept. 4, 1986, Trudy’s unclothed body is found by the railroad tracks that cross over Loch Raven Road just above 25th Street. Her skull has been crushed by something heavy.

Featherstone had turned himself in to city jail on Aug. 31 in connection with a rape charge involving a different girl. Brian picks him out of a photo array. A boot worn by Trudy the night of her death bears a footprint matching one of Featherstone’s shoes. On a handkerchief found near Trudy’s body is a hair of hers that matches others recovered from Featherstone’s house. The 700 block of East 23rd is an easy walk from the railroad cut where her body was found.

Antoine Newman is locked up with Featherstone at the city jail. Newman tells police Featherstone has confessed to some bad business involving a concrete block and a white girl who looks like Family Ties’ Justine Bateman. These are details about the crime that only the killer and the police know.

 

Featherstone comes to trial in May 1987 in the tiny courtroom of Judge John N. Prevas, on the fourth floor of Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse. Prevas is a baby judge, appointed during the summer of 1986. Although I’m not a lawyer, and I’m older than Prevas, I’m his clerk.

As one of the most junior judges on the Circuit Court, Prevas doesn’t rate much of a courtroom. It’s barely big enough to house the bench, the jury box, the tables at which the court clerk and the lawyers sit, and a not-very-accommodating spectator section.

Prevas was ready for the bench. An assistant state’s attorney since 1972, he was chief of the narcotics unit under State’s Attorney Kurt Schmoke when Gov. Harry Hughes tapped him. Prevas had the chutzpah to be the last prosecutor to try to convict the notorious William “Little Willie” Adams for his gambling enterprises. A 10-day marathon before Robert M. Bell, who will go to the Court of Appeals in 1991 and become its chief judge in 1996, the trial ended in Adams’ acquittal on all charges. Prevas has nearly a photographic memory and a mind that proceeds at warp speed through the canons of criminal law.

Featherstone is represented by Herschel Milliken. He’s up against a veteran felony trial prosecutor named Gary Schenker, and the case against his client is daunting. Schenker wants convictions for first-degree murder and rape. Milliken makes a good decision on his client’s behalf—he tries the case to the judge, without a jury.

Schenker produces not only Newman but another jailhouse witness, Freddie Almonte (who in 2010 will still be sought on a warrant following his 1987 conviction on drug charges). They testify that Featherstone has told them not only about Trudy, but also about another girl he raped in the same location. There’s a muddle about which girl he killed. Featherstone doesn’t testify, and Milliken is able to produce only a couple of hard-to-believe alibi witnesses.

To a jury, a nude girl found beaten to death looks like a sex crime. Trudy lay too long outdoors for forensics to offer indubitable proof that she was raped. After several days of testimony, Prevas sets forth his verdict in a painstaking announcement from the bench.

Not guilty of first-degree murder. Not guilty of rape. Guilty of murder in the second degree. By Newman’s account, Featherstone “weaved together” two different stories—one of a mentally disabled girl who’d submitted to him sexually at the railroad cut and the other of a girl he’d killed there after she refused to have sex with him. Prevas was forced to the conclusion that Trudy was the girl who had refused and that the state had not proven that Featherstone had ever violated her sexually. In July 1987, after a pre-sentence investigation, Prevas sends Featherstone to prison for 30 years, the maximum sentence in Maryland for murder two. For the record, Prevas regrets that he cannot impose a longer sentence.

 

In 1990 I enter state prison myself, interviewing new inmates and working them up for assignment to the institutions and programs appropriate to their crimes and their criminal histories. Every so often I look up Featherstone to see how he’s doing. His conviction and sentence were affirmed in 1988 in a three-page unreported opinion of the Court of Special Appeals. Prevas’ regrets at sentencing were found harmless. Judge Alan Wilner, speaking for the Court, wrote that Prevas “merely commented that he believed the statute should permit a greater penalty.”

Featherstone has been to the Patuxent Institution to tango with the shrinks for a year and a half. Many convicts hope to persuade doctors that all they need is treatment, not incarceration, and that properly treated, they can be paroled under the Patuxent statutes. The shrinks send Featherstone back to prison: the House of Correction in Jessup, the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown.

There’s a great deal of crime in my professional life. I forget about Featherstone.

We come now to June 2009. I’m still in prison, handling inmate complaints for the pre-release system in Jessup. Prevas is now the longest-serving judge in Baltimore City Circuit Court and occupies the honorific office of chief judge. His health has been poor for years, and I’m trying to persuade him to retire. I know very well that won’t happen—one day he’ll simply keel over in court.

Featherstone is in the city jail, facing new charges, including a first-degree sex offense. Backtracking, I see that Featherstone made parole, a stunner in itself, in December 2006. David Blumberg, chair of the Maryland Parole Commission, and then-Commissioner Candace Beckett together conducted the parole hearing and approved his release.

When Featherstone came up for parole in June 2006, he presented a grim history. His first prison sentence, for an armed robbery committed in 1973, drew 10 years. He escaped in 1977 and was not recaptured until 1981, when he drew another year for the escape. Weirdly, despite the escape and the years on the wing, he made parole in 1982. He came back on a parole violation in 1984, but was allowed to go home. He was still on parole when he murdered Trudy Levin.

This is the record that Blumberg and Beckett had before them in June 2006. Presumably they reviewed the documentation of Trudy’s murder. Presumably they saw the 1987 pre-sentence investigation report to Prevas, which noted Featherstone’s failure on his first parole. Featherstone’s 2006 parole was still granted.

During my DOC career, I staffed many parole revocation hearings—the sort of due-process proceeding that takes place when a convict violates the rules of his or her release. Blumberg and Beckett presided at many of these hearings. I got to know them well.

The tape of Featherstone’s 2006 parole hearing has been destroyed. Blumberg did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Featherstone, past 50 by this time, had done 20 years for Trudy’s murder. He hadn’t presented much of a disciplinary problem for the DOC. His letters to the courts and Prevas show a man who can explain himself in clear, meticulously printed prose. He must have appeared to be the sort of man who could be safely managed outside the walls.

Blumberg once told me that parole policies are a legitimate way to manage the prison population, given the limits on prison space. Maryland governors detest spending the capital budget on prisons. The minimize-incarceration policy that began slowly under governors William Donald Schaefer and Parris Glendening went into high gear under Robert Ehrlich and Martin O’Malley. Ehrlich appointed Blumberg to the Parole Commission in 2003; O’Malley reappointed him in 2009.

Ehrlich and O’Malley will tell you that prisons remain the right place for violent offenders. The practices of their administrations, however, give the lie to that bromide. Featherstone is just one poster boy for the system’s failures.

By the time of his release on parole in December 2006, Featherstone had earned 3,261 days of “diminution credits” for good conduct, work assignments, and special programs; for example, an inmate who works could be awarded 5 credits per month. These credits are applied to every Maryland sentence that is not for life, life without parole, or death. These credits accumulate over and above each day actually served and speed the day of release, without regard to parole, which is within the discretion of the Parole Commission.

In May 2007 Featherstone was convicted in the District Court for cocaine possession. His punishment was time served since arrest—33 days—$22.50 court costs, and $35 to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund. Both assessments were suspended.

Since a conviction for a new crime committed while on parole violates the rules of release, Featherstone went back to prison to await a revocation hearing. His parole was formally revoked in October 2007. Thanks to the 3,261 credits he had earned, he was released three days after the hearing.

As an offender whose parole had now been revoked, Featherstone was assigned to what is called “mandatory release” supervision. From this point forward, any new revocation exposed him to the loss of all those extra credits. The next guilty finding at a revocation hearing would land him back in prison until the original 30 years was entirely up.

Featherstone couldn’t seem to fly right. He came back to prison on March 16, 2009, for violation of his mandatory release—more than likely from new charges relating to a Jan. 26, 2009 incident that the prosecutor declined to prosecute (nolle prosequi). (See “The Bolesta Letter”) On April 2, Blumberg recalled the revocation warrant, which set Featherstone free the next day, and scheduled what is called a subpoena hearing on the new violation. Featherstone was directed to come to prison from home on May 12.

 

Just after midnight on May 11, 2009, Detective Jeffrey Stauder of the Baltimore City Police Sex Offender Unit responded to Mercy Hospital. A 31-year-old white woman being treated there reported that a few hours before, she had been beaten up and sexually assaulted by a man called Will.

On May 12, Featherstone reported to the Maryland Reception Center, a prison in downtown Baltimore, for his subpoena hearing. Parole Commissioner Jasper Clay continued his mandatory release supervision and let him go home.

Featherstone was arrested May 15, which triggered still another revocation warrant, which got him moved from city jail to state prison on June 29, 2009. (He has been continuously incarcerated since May 15, 2009.) He was indicted by the grand jury, his representation conducted by the Office of the Public Defender.

The statutory maximum sentence for sex offense in the first degree is life. As evidenced on the Maryland sentencing guidelines worksheet, Baltimore City Assistant State’s Attorney Aaliyah Muhammad calculated the sentencing guidelines as calling for a sentence within the range of 25 to 35 years. Muhammad miscalculated in at least one respect—she failed to count the formal 2007 parole revocation. (The line for “Prior Adult parole/Prob Violation” is marked “No.”) Although the guidelines were never mentioned when White sentenced Featherstone on July 1, 2010, the sentencing guidelines worksheet is found in the court file.

During a July 8 telephone interview, White said she was aware when she sentenced Featherstone that he was on “parole,” but she wasn’t clear whether or not he’d actually been revoked. In point of fact, he hadn’t. (He was finally revoked on July 23, 2010.) She might have made her sentence consecutive to the time remaining on the old sentence, more than eight years. And as evidenced on the hearing video, she agreed prior to Featherstone appearing in her courtroom that she would not do this.

“I had all [before me] that I was responsible to address,” White told me about Featherstone’s hearing during the July 8 interview. I’d have more confidence in White if she hadn’t also told me that Featherstone’s 1974 case was a murder, and a first-degree one at that. Neither is true. “He’s not going to be out anytime soon,” she said.

After I’d viewed the tape of the plea and sentencing, I had some more questions for White. She declined to speak to me again.

It’s doubtful that Muhammad or her substitute, Stephanie Bryant, had any idea who Featherstone was. If they went back to look at his 1986 murder, or found the pre-sentence investigation report to Prevas, they’re not saying. Perhaps they thought that Featherstone’s 2009 victim, a drug user with two convictions for prostitution, wouldn’t be sympathetic to a jury. Perhaps the victim wasn’t available to testify (I couldn’t find her). Maybe they thought 10 years was the best they could get without a jury.

Muhammad, Bryant, and their boss, Jo Anne Stanton, head of the Sex Offense Division of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office, had more than a year between indictment and plea to get it right. They had Featherstone’s DNA. If they were ready to tell a jury, or the judge, that he had already committed a murder in sexual circumstances in the same place where he was accused of attacking his new victim, they would have gone a long way toward making a woman of easy virtue believable. If anyone had remembered Trudy Levin, Featherstone would have been looking at a life sentence.

Muhammad and Bryant are not allowed by the State’s Attorney’s Office to provide comment for this article. Repeated requests for comment to Jo Anne Stanton have elicited no response. During an Oct. 7 telephone conversation, State’s Attorney’s Office spokesperson Margaret Burns said, “I don’t know anything” specifically about the Featherstone case or the July 1 plea. But in sex offense cases where the victim is “unsympathetic” or unavailable to testify, she added, “the policy now” is to make a plea offer “with a significant suspended sentence,” which can later be imposed if and when the defendant violates his probation.

The leniency granted to Featherstone is what we’ve come to accept as fair and impartial justice. The final shame lies in the unwillingness of the State’s Attorney, the Parole Commission, and White to discuss the case. We may never know what went wrong and how some terrible decisions were made. I want them to remember that Featherstone is coming home again, in about eight years. He’ll be 63. Chances are, he’ll be ready to party.

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