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Mobtown Beat

Street Rules

Woman charged for obstructing probe of federal-witness slaying said to be "proud" to protect murderer

By Van Smith | Posted 7/14/2010

Raine Zircon Curtis appears utterly bored. She's slouched in her chair, resting her head against the chair-back or, at other times, staring ahead as she props up her head with a hand covering her mouth. Her coolly unconcerned body language is starkly at odds with what's at stake: her freedom. She's in a federal courtroom in Baltimore on July 9, listening to her lawyer try to keep her out of jail. In the back of the courtroom seated on a bench, one of Curtis' loved ones seems to understand the gravity of the situation: She's crying inconsolably.

Curtis, the proceedings reveal, has no criminal record, a job with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, and children in the care of others. On June 1, an indictment was unsealed charging her with obstruction of justice for lying to a federal grand jury and to FBI agents about what she knows about the September 2009 murder of Kareem Kelly Guest, a federal witness in a major drug-trafficking prosecution focused on South Baltimore's Westport neighborhood. If convicted, Curtis faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

In the meantime, Curtis is trying to avoid being detained until her trial, which is scheduled for November. Her attorney, Joseph Murtha, is doing the best he can to reverse an earlier detention order, and the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Purcell, is doing his best to assure she remains locked up because her freedom puts the public at risk of danger. The decision rests with U.S. District Court Judge Richard Bennett, who appears swayed by Purcell's tough, though temperately delivered, argument.

Purcell lays out the facts and evidence against Curtis, saying she flat-out lied to the grand jury by claiming she hadn't seen the fatal shooting of Guest, which occurred on Sept. 20, 2009, shortly after copies of FBI documents detailing Guest's law-enforcement cooperation showed up in Westport. The next day, Curtis had a recorded phone conversation with an inmate, Purcell explains, and "stated that the shooting of Kareem Guest occurred right in front of her"—though the government only obtained a recording of the prison phone call after Curtis' February 2010 grand-jury appearance. With the new evidence in hand, Purcell says, he and FBI agents again interviewed Curtis, and she "continued to make false statements," again claiming not to have seen the killing.

Curtis, Purcell says, is "a person who made a very determined decision not to cooperate" with a grand-jury investigation and during interviews conducted by FBI agents, and "she is proud of herself" for doing so. She's been "almost nonchalant" about Guest's murder, Purcell continues, and, as for the murder probe, "she thought it was a joke—that's the prevailing attitude." He adds that it was "not fear" that prompted her to be uncooperative; rather, "it was just, I'm not going to help. In a civilized society, you can't have that." In sum, the prosecutor argues, Curtis is "essentially protecting a murderer, and that's a direct threat not just to the community, but to the legal system itself."

Murtha opens with a conciliatory tone, saying, he's "not contesting the facts" that Purcell spells out, just the contention that his client is "an obvious danger" to the community who cannot safely be released with pretrial conditions. There has "seemed to be this magnetic draw" to conclude that she was "attempting to protect the person responsible," Murtha continues, but there is an equally weighty possibility that "she did what she did in order to protect herself." When you are "being told you have to testify" before a grand jury, you are "in the same position as Kareem Guest," Murtha argues, saying Curtis "had no Fifth Amendment right" not to incriminate herself because she had no criminal conduct of her own to hide. In short, by not cooperating, she made "a very bad decision based on self-preservation," Murtha contends.

The "government suggested that because she was allowing a murderer to still be at large," Murtha continues, Curtis is a danger to the community. "She has known since February 2010," after her grand-jury testimony, "that she has been the subject of a criminal investigation," he continues, and yet no evidence has surfaced that she has tried to endanger anyone. "There is nothing," Murtha says, "that suggests that she's engaged in any behavior that would be a danger to the community."

Bennett sides with the government, saying Curtis "absolutely does represent a risk to the community," echoing Purcell's argument that "essentially, she is shielding the murderer of a federal witness from prosecution," which "is a threat to the very core of the criminal justice system." He adds that her ongoing non-cooperation demonstrates that she is "still protecting" whoever killed Guest, whose identity she knows because "she was standing right there, in her own words." He ends his ruling from the bench by ordering that Curtis "will not be housed here in Baltimore" as she remains detained before trial.

Curtis, her small frame clad in a brown tunic and pants, holds her wrists behind her for the marshalls to cuff. She looks all the smaller next to the large men escorting her out of the courtroom. She still shows no emotion, but as she is led past Bennett through a side door, en route back to jail, one of her loved ones continues to weep.

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