Pr. George's Jurist Criticized for Freeing Murder Defendant Without Bond
The Washington Post by Avis Thomas-Lester - March 15, 2009
In the courtroom, Judge Hassan A. El-Amin is known for delivering stern but respectful lectures. Some defendants get the "Rayful Edmond" speech, where they hear about the notorious drug kingpin serving a life sentence for running the area's largest crime organization. Others get the "this is why you are going to jail" speech. "He'll say something like, 'Your parents couldn't correct you, your teachers couldn't correct you, so now you're faced with a whole correctional system. You have to be corrected,' " said Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery, a longtime friend of the Prince George's County district judge. Although El-Amin's March 5 decision to release murder defendant Sean M. Sykes without bond has drawn criticism from police and prosecutors, acquaintances said his approach on the bench is informed by his Muslim faith, and several defense lawyers described him as a fair judge. "My clients walk away feeling like they had a fair hearing, whether they leave through the back door wearing handcuffs or walk out the front of the courthouse," said criminal defense attorney Antoini Jones. Sykes was arrested Thursday on a drug charge, a week after being released. Those critical of El-Amin's decision in the Sykes case could point to no specific cases that would prove a broad pattern of leniency toward defendants. Last March, however, El-Amin set bond at $50,000 for Arlen C. Garrett, another defendant charged with second-degree murder.
District judges in Prince George's rarely release murder defendants before trial. The few who are released usually post a high bond -- generally no less than $500,000. Garrett, then 22 and enrolled at Howard University, was accused, along with another man, of killing a teenager in Hyattsville over drugs. In court, Garrett had strong support from his father, an architect, and his mother, a teacher. After El-Amin set bond, Garrett's family paid 10 percent to a bondsman and Garrett was released. Garrett appeared at all court hearings and stayed out of trouble. He ultimately pleaded guilty to attempted armed robbery and a gun charge and was sentenced in January to eight years in prison. Defense lawyer Christopher Griffiths cited the case as an example of a judge exercising discretion properly. "Some judges have knee-jerk reactions when they see someone charged with murder," said Griffiths, who represented Garrett. "That's not what we want from members of the bench." El-Amin is a classical pianist and motorcycle enthusiast, a former defense attorney who coordinates an annual youth oratorical contest and who founded a chess program at a high school in Temple Hills.
Sykes is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 24 stabbing of Rene R. Belasco in Oxon Hill. Police allege that Sykes is a member of the Bloods gang and that, on the night of the slaying, he and another man threatened to kill a witness. Sykes was initially held on $1.5 million bond, but El-Amin released him to his mother after concluding that Sykes posed no danger to the community and was not a flight risk. Prosecutors are seeking to reverse the ruling, alleging in court papers that returning Sykes to the apartment building where he lives and where the stabbing occurred "places all residents in fear and all witnesses in potential danger." Belasco's stepfather called the judge's decision a "travesty." Prosecutors revived an earlier drug case against Sykes, and he was arrested Thursday for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He is expected to be in court tomorrow in that case. El-Amin, who was appointed to the District Court in 2000 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), declined to speak for this story. Acquaintances said El-Amin's treatment of defendants in his courtroom is borne of a respect for individual rights that is a tenet of his Muslim faith. Born Vernon Jones in Charleston, W.Va., he attended Yale on a full scholarship before embracing Islam and going to law school.
For several years, El-Amin has coordinated a youth oratorical contest sponsored by the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association, an organization of mostly black lawyers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. El-Amin, 61, helped found programs to provide educational enrichment to at-risk youths and to teach students about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. He started a chess program at Crossland High School, said attorney Betty Hewlett, who has known El-Amin for 27 years. "He is very bright, very studious, very dedicated and multi-talented," Hewlett said. "But his biggest commitment is to young people. He feels it is a responsibility . . . because we lose so many." The judge holds a patent for a device that pre-moistens bathroom tissue, records show. He has been married for more than 30 years and has adult children and grandchildren, acquaintances said. Steven Stosny, director of the Core Value Workshop, a treatment program for domestic-violence defendants, said his clients credit El-Amin for taking an interest in their progress and encouraging them to continue to improve. "He believes you can make a psychological difference in people's lives," Stosny said. "I find him to be compassionate and caring. When you give people the benefit of the doubt, there can be a margin of error."
Jones said the controversy surrounding El-Amin's decision in the Sykes case is likely to have a "chilling effect" on the willingness of other judges to exercise their discretion over whether to release defendants before trial. In a previous interview, El-Amin criticized the Maryland court system for failing to provide lawyers to defendants at bond hearings. He also said he takes seriously "the presumption of innocence." But some law enforcement officials said that the decision was wrong and that residents' safety should outweigh defendants' rights. "I appreciate his focus on the rights of the defendants, but the bigger group we deal with in the police department are victims," said Maj. Andy Ellis, spokesman for the county police. "What about the rights of our victims?" Staff writer Ruben Castaneda and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.