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Mobtown Beat

Jose Morales, Redux

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/7/2009

The saga of Jose Morales continues in Texas, as he remains jailed while awaiting sentencing on a cocaine charge.

Morales was arrested in August, 2008 at the Edinburg airport after trying to charter a jet back to Baltimore. Federal agents found six kilos of cocaine in a restroom trash can. Morales pled guilty to a single felony count last spring, and there touched-off a protracted—and largely secret—battle over his sentencing, which had been scheduled for Dec. 1.

That sentencing date was pushed back to Feb. 24, 2010, after Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolyn Ferko filed a motion on Nov. 20 asking for the postponement. In her motion, Ferko wrote that she is “awaiting receipt of the defendant’s complete State of Maryland Department of Corrections penitentiary file which is crucial to the Government to address sentencing enhancement issues.”

“Sentence enhancement” means Ferko wants Morales’ sentence to be tougher than it otherwise would be. Under federal sentencing guidelines, five kilos generally rates at least 10 years in prison.

Morales’ lawyer, John Teakell, countered with a motion of his own, arguing against the postponement. “The government requests more time to try to obtain records to support the career status enhancement proposed in the Pre-Sentence Report, based upon an old conviction concerning Defendant MORALES from Maryland,” he writes. “However, due to the manner in which the State of Maryland keeps records/archives of closed cases, it appears that there would be little if any information forthcoming in addition to the information that the United States already possesses.”

Neither Ferko nor her office’s spokeswoman, Angela Dodge, would comment on the case beyond the public record. Morales’s lawyer, John Teakell, did not return a phone call and email requesting comment. All of Morales’s presentencing reports are filed under seal, as are many other aspects of the case.

At issue is Morales’ potential status as a “career offender.” According to Dodge, federal sentencing advisory guidelines provides that a “career offender is a defendant who 1) was at least 18 years old at the time the commission of the instant offense of conviction; 2) the instant offense is a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and 3) the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense.”

State records reviewed by City Paper indicate that Morales has been convicted five times following felony charges, including malicious burning, drug charges, and identity theft. He has repeatedly been charged with—though never convicted of—witness intimidation. He walked away from two separate gun-related charges and pleaded numerous vehicle theft charges down to obliterating a vehicle identification number, and saw many other charges dropped. His wife has on multiple occasions sworn out complaints claiming that Morales beat and threatened to kill her.

At the time of his Texas arrest, Morales faced bad-check charges in Howard county, an assault charge in Anne Arundel, burglary charges in Baltimore County, and three criminal cases in Baltimore City involving grand thefts, assault and threatening. Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, says he doesn’t know whether Morales will still face criminal charges here after his sentencing on the federal charge. “The official answer is, if it is still viable we’d like to prosecute it,” he says, adding that he can’t be sure that will happen: “who knows what can happen between now and whenever?”

City Paper could not determine how—or whether—Maryland’s Correctional record-keeping either differs from those of other states or potentially hinders federal prosecutors. Mark Vernarelli, the spokesman for the State Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, says his department responded to a record request from Ferko regarding Morales after City Paper asked about the situation.

“When I inquired about the Morales case to the director of the Commitment Office, she went right ahead and took the initiative to get the photo, fingerprints, and commitment records and faxed them to the U.S. Attorney in McAllen yesterday,” he said in a Dec. 4 e-mail.

In a subsequent email, Vernarelli says that a previous request from federal prosecutors went to a different office within the department, the Criminal Justice Information System, known by its acronym, CJIS. “Texas wanted Morales' ‘penitentiary packet,’ which I guess is his base file from DOC [the Department of Corrections],” Vernarelli wrote. “CJIS has no access to such files, so the CJIS person directed the caller to the Office of the Commissioner.

“In the meantime, of course, the Director of Commitment did send all of the commitment papers, etc., as you saw” in the previous e-mail.

Calls to the Federal Office of Probation and Pretrial Services, which compiles the criminal histories of federal criminal defendants and make sentencing recommendations, brought forth no information about how they usually go about compiling defendants’ criminal records. A woman who answered the phone at the Baltimore office said that the division has its own central records and does not ask state agencies for copies, but none of the three people she referred a reporter to would explain the office’s methods or provide any information beyond the most general.

“I am attaching a public information series that is generally released to the press,” wrote Nancy Peterson, secretary to the chief of Maryland’s Division of Probation, William F. Henry. “I hope this responds to your inquiry.”

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