HOLLIDAYSBURG - A routine pretrial status conference in a drug case turned heated Thursday afternoon when the attorneys for a suspect scheduled to go on trial Monday had him plead guilty to one of the charges, then contended that plea barred trial on most of the other charges under the doctrine of double jeopardy.
If attorneys for Rodney "Rocco" Williams, 37, the alleged Baltimore cocaine connection in the "Operation Last Call" cases, have their way, Blair County Daniel J. Milliron will accept Williams' plea to one count of possession with intent to deliver and sentence him to a prison term that could be as high as 9-20 years.
But, by doing that, many of the other charges could not be presented to the jury, limiting the sentence Williams could receive.
While 9 years may seem like a tough sentence, one of Williams alleged accomplices in the cocaine ring operating out of the Corner Bar and Grille at 1008 Eighth Ave. during 2011, Jermaine Samuel, just two weeks ago was sentenced to 46-103 years for his part in the Baltimore-to-Altoona cocaine ring.
Williams' attorneys, Philip M. Masorti and Robert Donaldson, contend that the charges against Williams overlap and constitute double jeopardy.
The move by the defense attorneys blindsided Judge Milliron who said in his 10 years on the bench he never saw anything like what occurred in the courtroom Thursday.
He said what occurred was "lower than I would expect from you gentlemen."
Milliron said the unexpected move by the defense was "not appreciated."
But, Masorti put pressure on Milliron, telling him he had to accept the plea that Williams said he wanted to make.
"I don't think you can refuse to take a citizen's open plea," Masorti said to Milliron.
The judge, however, said the defense lawyers were trying to get him to accept their interpretation of the law, and he refused to do that.
Milliron adjourned Thursday's hearing stating that he and his law clerk would research the law this morning and reconvene just after 1 p.m. today.
The judge said he couldn't agree to accept a guilty plea from Williams Thursday. He didn't know Williams' background.
"I am not prepared to give up my sentencing discretion right now," Milliron said.
And, he said, "I will not piecemeal my [sentencing] discretion."
The judge contended that the defense was attempting to make a move that would put the prosecution at a disadvantage in presenting its case. That led Masorti to contend Milliron was taking the prosecution's side.
Equally awestruck by the defense move was the prosecution, led by Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman and Blair County Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks.
The two attorneys this year have tried two members of the Corner Bar drug ring, Samuel and Kenneth Piner, and both were found guilty.
The prosecution intends to proceed Monday in the same manner it did in the two prior trials, presenting testimony from police and allowing the jury to hear phone conversations as members of the drug gang carried out their daily drug operations in 2011.
Weeks argued that the defense was way off base. He said the prosecution would not be precluded from presenting all its information, even if Williams entered his guilty plea to one charge, and he argued that the defense should not be allowed to create its own double jeopardy issue.
Williams, according to court documents, is charged with drug offenses from July 15, 2011, through Nov. 4, 2011.
He is charged with a second set of offenses encompassing Oct. 15, 2011, through Nov. 4, 2011.
It was on Nov. 4, 2011, that police broke up the Corner bar gang after following an Altoona woman to Baltimore where, it is alleged, she obtained nearly 1,000 grams of cocaine from Williams at his Baltimore residence.
Williams, when questioned by Masorti, agreed he was guilty of possession with intent to deliver concerning the Nov.3-4, 2011, drug transaction with the Altoona woman.
The other set of charges however, ties him into the entire drug operations from July into November, and that involves not only other drug deals but also being a member of a corrupt organization, conspiracy, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, criminal use of a communication facility, all offenses that could add substantial jail time to his sentence.
It is those charges the defense is attempting to block.
Williams told the judge, "I think I have two great lawyers," when asked if he was satisfied with his legal representation.
Milliron pointed out that he was upset because the jury for the case was selected April 22 and the complex legal argument by the defense came up expectedly just three days before trial.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.