Drug trial to start Monday

The drug trial of Rodney Williams of Baltimore will begin as scheduled Monday morning, according to a ruling issued late Friday by Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron.

Milliron rejected a defense argument that the charges against Williams constituted double jeopardy, and he said a defense move to have the 37-year-old plead guilty to one of the many charges against him was nothing but an attempt to delay the trial.

The judge refused to accept Williams’ plea.

The decision by the judge concluded a contentious 24-hour period in which Milliron claimed he was blindsided by a defense move to have Williams plead guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine to escape prosecution on other charges.

Defense attorneys Philip M. Masorti and Robert Donaldson maintained that the judge had to accept Williams’ plea.

They also contended that Williams’ plea would bar continued prosecution against Williams on other charges, such as participation in a corrupt organization, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, criminal use of a communication facility and the use of proceeds from illegal activity.

The other charges were included in a separate indictment from the possession with intent charge but covered much of the same time period.

By joining the two indictments for trial, the defense concluded Williams was being exposed to trial – and sentencing – twice for the same criminal incidents.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits such “double jeopardy.”

Blair County Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks and Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman deny that Williams is being tried twice for the same offenses, and they accused the defense lawyers of trying to create a situation in which double jeopardy might apply by having Williams plea to just one of the many charges.

The judge pulled few punches during the Friday hearing.

He said when he met with the prosecution and defense on Thursday afternoon, he got the impression from Masorti and Donaldson that Williams, known on the streets as “Rocco,” intended to enter guilty pleas to all of the charges.

That impression arose during an in-chambers meeting with the attorneys, Milliron said.

When the group got into the courtroom, what Milliron thought was going to occur did not.

Instead Williams was asked how he pleaded to possession with intent to deliver cocaine surrounding a drug deal that culminated on Nov. 4, 2011, when police stopped a young Altoona woman on her way back from Baltimore with nearly 1,000 grams of cocaine that police said she obtained from Williams.

Williams said he was entering a guilty plea to that charge. Masorti then wanted the judge to accept the plea, exposing Williams to a 9 to 20 year prison sentence.

But the defense attorney also said that by accepting the plea, Williams could not be tried for the many other charges that came about because he allegedly was part of a drug ring operating out of the now-closed Corner Bar and Grille at 1001 Eighth Ave.

If convicted of participating in the Corner Bar drug ring, Williams could receive a much longer sentence.

Milliron balked on Thursday, saying the defense was taking away his discretion as a judge, and he decided he would take a day to review the law.

That review was concluded by early Friday afternoon, and the judge issued his ruling.

He refused to accept Williams’ plea and said he believed Williams only pleaded guilty as part of the defense attorneys’ strategy to bar trial on all the other charges.

The judge speculated the defense may attempt to have the Superior Court override him by filing an appeal over the weekend.

Milliron said if this happens, he will tell the Superior Court he believes the double jeopardy argument was used as part of a defense strategy to delay the trial.

The judge repeatedly called the defense attorneys “disingenuous” for the way they surprised him and the prosecution with the double jeopardy ploy.

Masorti said he thought the judge’s criticism of the defense showed the judge was leaning toward the prosecution and he questioned Million’s impartiality.

He asked Milliron to recuse himself.

The judge refused, saying to Masorti, “You and Mr. Donaldson were disingenuous with the court. No doubt about it. I’m not going to hold ill will against Mr. Williams.”

Because the Williams case is receiving publicity just prior to the start of the trial, Milliron said he will quiz the jurors Monday whether they have received any information about the case since their selection on April 22.

This is Milliron’s third trial this year centering on suspects arrested as part of Operation Last Call.

The previous two trials each lasted two weeks.

Milliron said the Williams trial might take only a week.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.