Too Weird for The Wire
How black Baltimore drug dealers are using white supremacist legal theories to confound the Feds.
by Kevin Carey, The Washington Monthly
On November 16, 2005, Willie “Bo” Mitchell and three co-defendants—Shelton “Little Rock” Harris, Shelly “Wayne” Martin, and Shawn Earl Gardner— appeared for a hearing in the modern federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. The four African American men were facing federal charges of racketeering, weapons possession, drug dealing, and five counts of first-degree murder. For nearly two years the prosecutors had been methodically building their case, with the aim of putting the defendants to death. In Baltimore, which has a murder rate eight times higher than that of New York City, such cases are depressingly commonplace.
A few minutes after 10 a.m., United States District Court Judge Andre M. Davis took his seat and began his introductory remarks. Suddenly, the leader of the defendants, Willie Mitchell, a short, unremarkable looking twenty-eight-yearold with close-cropped hair, leapt from his chair, grabbed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre soliloquy.
“I am not a defendant,” Mitchell declared. “I do not have attorneys.” The court “lacks territorial jurisdiction over me,” he argued, to the amazement of his lawyers. To support these contentions, he cited decades-old acts of Congress involving the abandonment of the gold standard and the creation of the Federal Reserve. Judge Davis, a Baltimore-born African American in his late fifties, tried to interrupt. “I object,” Mitchell repeated robotically. Shelly Martin and Shelton Harris followed Mitchell to the microphone, giving the same speech verbatim. Their attorneys tried to intervene, but when Harris’s lawyer leaned over to speak to him, Harris shoved him away.
Judge Davis ordered the three defendants to be removed from the court, and turned to Gardner, who had, until then, remained quiet. But Gardner, too, intoned the same strange speech. “I am Shawn Earl Gardner, live man, flesh and blood,” he proclaimed. Every time the judge referred to him as “the defendant” or “Mr. Gardner,” Gardner automatically interrupted: “My name is Shawn Earl Gardner, sir.” Davis tried to explain to Gardner that his behavior was putting his chances of acquittal or leniency at risk. “Don’t throw your life away,” Davis pleaded. But Gardner wouldn’t stop. Judge Davis concluded the hearing, determined to find out what was going on.
As it turned out, he wasn’t alone. In the previous year, nearly twenty defendants in other Baltimore cases had begun adopting what lawyers in the federal courthouse came to call “the flesh-and-blood defense.” The defense, such as it is, boils down to this: As officers of the court, all defense lawyers are really on the government’s side, having sworn an oath to uphold a vast, century-old conspiracy to conceal the fact that most aspects of the federal government are illegitimate, including the courts, which have no constitutional authority to bring people to trial. The defendants also believed that a legal distinction could be drawn between their name as written on their indictment and their true identity as a “flesh and blood man.”
Judge Davis and his law clerk pored over the case files, which led them to a series of strange Web sites. The fleshand- blood defense, they discovered, came from a place far from Baltimore, from people as different from Willie Mitchell as people could possibly be. Its antecedents stretched back decades, involving religious zealots, gun nuts, tax protestors, and violent separatists driven by theories that had fueled delusions of Aryan supremacy and race war in gun-loaded compounds in the wilds of Montana and Idaho. Although Mitchell and his peers didn’t know it, they were inheriting the intellectual legacy of white supremacists who believe that America was irrevocably broken when the 14th Amendment provided equal rights to former slaves. It was the ideology that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history, and now, a decade later, it had somehow sprouted in the crime-ridden ghettos of Baltimore.
The series of events that led to the prosecution of Willie Mitchell et al are as convoluted, tragic and intermittently absurd as an episode of HBO’s acclaimed Baltimore crime drama, The Wire. Mitchell and company came of age on the streets of West Baltimore, a few miles and a world away from the rejuvenated inner harbor and the tourist attractions near the federal courthouse. According to prosecutors, the group began selling drugs together as teenagers in the mid-1990s, driving up I-95 to New York City, buying half kilos of cocaine in upper Manhattan and cooking it into crack to sell back home. They added heroin to their repertoire a few years later, as well as robbing and killing other drug dealers. By 2002, they were firmly established in what passes as normal enterprise in a hollowed-out economy like Baltimore, where the drug trade often provides more opportunity than legitimate work and the bedrock institutions of family and school have crumbled. They had children out of wedlock with multiple women. They were occasionally arrested, although they never served much time. It was an insular culture where a ruthless prohibition against “snitching” to the police was often more powerful than any law. Even as cities like New York saw the murder rate decline dramatically, drug killings in Baltimore continued at a steady clip.
According to the indictment, the end began on February 18, 2002, in a downtown Baltimore nightclub called Hammerjacks, where Mitchell got into a dispute and stabbed a fellow drug dealer in the back, seriously wounding him. If Mitchell had hoped to get away with this attempted murder, he was swiftly and brutally set straight by the drug dealer’s associates. When police on patrol found Mitchell later that evening, he was on a sidewalk with several men jumping on his head. Mitchell survived the assault, but he remained in serious trouble. The police had issued a warrant for his arrest; more ominously, his enemies had placed a $10,000 contract on his head.
Mitchell probably didn’t know exactly what his enemies had in mind, but he was seasoned enough to realize that they wanted him killed. Ten days after the club incident, prosecutors allege, he made a phone call to an associate of the men who had beaten him up. The associate was a drug dealer named Oliver “Woody” McCaffity. Mitchell proposed that the two men meet that evening for a drug deal.
Neither man came to the meeting alone. Mitchell brought a friend, Shelton Harris. McCaffity brought his sometime girlfriend, Lisa Brown. Brown was a pastor’s daughter, a computer systems analyst and mother of three. Her parents told reporters that she had broken up with McCaffity after learning of his involvement with drugs. But when he called and invited her to the movies, she decided to go along.
The two parties drove to the Park Heights section of Northwest Baltimore. It was a quick meeting. Mitchell and Harris climbed into the backseat of McCaffity’s Infiniti Q-45. Then they shot McCaffity through the head and fired through Brown’s raised right hand into her left temple, where police later found a .357 caliber bullet. The bodies of McCaffity and Brown were left in the car, which rolled downhill and rammed into a nearby tree at the dead-end of the street. Police found it two hours later. A palm print on the car window was later matched to Harris, and McCaffity’s cell phone records revealed calls that night to Mitchell’s phone. Mitchell, suspecting that McCaffity’s associates were going to try to kill him, had apparently decided to kill first. The murder would probably not have attracted much attention, except for the fact that McCaffity’s Infiniti was owned by Hasim Rahman, the recently dethroned heavyweight boxing champion of the world. McCaffity was a friend and business associate of Rahman, causing the ex-champ to quickly call a press conference denying any involvement in the crimes. (Police have never alleged otherwise.)
If the killing of McCaffity and Brown had been a successful preemptive strike, Mitchell was also prepared to kill for more mundane reasons. On March 24, a few weeks after the Mc- Caffity murder, Mitchell allegedly called a former high school classmate named Darryl Wyche and offered to buy some heroin and cocaine from him. Darryl, excited by the prospect of a big sale, agreed. The two made plans to meet in a nearby industrial park around midnight.
Again, neither party came alone. Wyche brought his younger brother Tony, who had reluctantly agreed to drive. Mitchell brought Harris again, as well as two more friends: Shelly Martin and Shawn Gardner.
The Wyche brothers opened the back door of their Honda to let Mitchell and his men into the back seat. Then each received a bullet in the side of the head. The next morning the police found the bodies, seat belts still on. (Mitchell appears to have seen Wyche as an easy source of drugs and cash.)
But Mitchell’s luck was about to end. When Baltimore homicide detectives found the bodies of the Wyche brothers, they assumed they had come across another hard-to-solve drug killing. Then they received an unexpected phone call. It was from Darryl Wyche’s mother-in-law, who reported finding a strange message on her phone. Recorded at 12:43 a.m., the message was four and a half minutes of a group of men with names like “Wayne” and “Shorty” saying things like “Bup-bup-bup-bup-bup, yo, they both fucked.” The call had come from the cellphone of Darryl Wyche.
Wyche’s family and the police soon figured out what had happened: One of the murderers had stolen Darryl Wyche’s phone and forgotten to turn it off. While the killers were driving away, one of them had accidentally pressed the phone’s speed dial button, calling Darryl’s mother-in-law and producing a most unusual piece of evidence: a voicemail confession. With considerable understatement, a lieutenant in the city homicide unit reflected on his good fortune to the Baltimore Sun. “We got lucky,” he said. Willie Mitchell and Shelly Martin were soon rounded up and put in jail.
What would become the fifth and final murder charge in the case of Willie Mitchell and his cohorts took place two months later. This time, only Mitchell’s friend Shawn Gardner was directly involved. It began with a man named Darius Spence, who had found out that his wife, Tanya, was cheating on him with a local drug dealer everyone called “Momma.”
Spence decided to have Momma beaten up severely. To accomplish this, he negotiated with another drug dealer named Willie Montgomery. Would Montgomery be willing to beat up Momma in exchange for money? But Montgomery had another proposition altogether. Beating Momma up didn’t make sense, Montgomery argued, because then Momma would undoubtedly try to kill Montgomery. It was better just to kill Momma outright, and for five thousand dollars, Montgomery would be glad to do the job. Spence said he’d think it over.
Unfortunately for Darius Spence, Montgomery wasn’t interested in waiting around for an answer. Instead, sensing opportunity, Montgomery decided to tell Momma about the hit. If I turn down the deal, Montgomery explained, then Spence will probably just hire someone else to kill you. Therefore, Montgomery reasoned, you should hire me to kill Spence first. Momma was persuaded. (As Montgomery later explained to the prosecutors, “I guess he like that idea better than Darius Spence’s idea.”)
To execute the hit on Spence, Montgomery recruited two associates, one of whom was Shawn Gardner. For the next two months, the three men staked out Spence’s apartment. The plan was for Shawn Gardner and his associate to invade from the basement and carry out the killing, and then run to a nearby getaway car, which was to be driven by Montgomery. Special care was to be taken not to harm Tanya, and they would cover her eyes with duct tape to prevent her from identifying them. Still, Montgomery warned Momma that he couldn’t guarantee Tanya’s safety. “If it’s up to me, she won’t be hurt,” Montgomery told Momma, “but some things could go wrong.” Momma’s reply was to the point: “Do what you do.”
On June 7, 2002, the three men drove to the Spence apartment, a worn red brick building at the end of a cul-de-sac a few miles from Baltimore city. But the hit didn’t go as planned. Darius Spence wasn’t in the apartment, and they didn’t manage to blindfold Tanya. As children played outside the Spence apartment, Tanya burst through the kitchen door on the third floor, screaming, “No! No!” Lifting one leg over the balcony, she tried to climb down to the floor below but lost her grip and fell fifteen feet to the ground, landing a few feet from the children. Gasping for breath, she motioned for them to run away before crawling under the first floor balcony. Moments later, the two killers emerged from the Spence apartment, ran down the steps and stopped a few feet from Tanya, now lying in the fetal position in the dirt and begging for her life. One pulled out a large caliber revolver and fired two shots into Tanya’s chest as the children watched. Then both men ran away.
Unfortunately for the killers, Montgomery wasn’t where they thought he’d be. Somehow the meeting place had gotten confused, and the getaway failed. Police quickly apprehended Shawn Gardner and his associate. Eventually, the law caught up to Montgomery, too.
Gardner was tried, convicted, and sentenced in state court to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of Tanya Spence. Meanwhile, Willie Mitchell and Shelly Martin were charged by the state with the Wyche brothers’ killings and sat in prison for the next year and a half as police and prosecutors assembled their case.
Then, on January 22, 2004—nearly two years after the first four murders—the word came down from the office of U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio: the Willie Mitchell case was going federal, and the government was seeking the death penalty. The Justice Department, DiBiagio explained, was going after “individuals responsible for making life hell in Baltimore.”
For Mitchell and company, this was bad news. Instead of jurors selected from the city pool, Mitchell would likely be judged by an all-white panel of citizens from places like Maryland’s westernmost rural counties or the far reaches of the Eastern Shore. He would face better-funded prosecutors, and was far more likely to get the death penalty. Maryland has only executed five people in the last thirty years, but in 2005, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was aggressively seeking death sentences. In fact, the Justice Department was even retrying cases in order to win death penalties for crimes like the Spence murder, for which Shawn Gardner was already serving life without parole.
DiBiagio’s office also added a raft of conspiracy charges to the indictment, filed under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. By alleging that the defendants were part of an organized conspiracy— the so-called “Willie Mitchell organization”—prosecutors could hold all four defendants responsible for any of the crimes the others had committed. That’s why Shelton Harris, who wasn’t originally arrested for the Wyche or the McCaffity and Brown murders, was pulled off the street and charged with the full slate of crimes. It’s also why Mitchell and Harris were charged with the Spence murder, although they were already in jail when Shawn Gardner committed it. RICO is normally applied to members of the mafia and organized crime, and its use sent a clear message: the government was coming at Mitchell and company with everything it had.
The prosecutors bolstered the conspiracy argument by noting that, unlike most Baltimore drug dealers, Mitchell and company had incorporated a legal entity for which they all worked and allegedly funneled proceeds of their drug business into: “Shake Down Entertainment, Ltd.” The group promoted rap CDs and concerts through the company, which even had its own record label, “Shystyville.” Soon, Shystyville CDs with titles like “Pure Shit” became evidence of not just the conspiracy but the crimes themselves, with prosecutors entering into the record lyrics like these:
Prosecutors alleged that the “bitch next to you” was Lisa Brown, who was sitting beside Oliver McCaffity when he was shot through the head, that a “pup” is slang for the largecaliber revolver used in the killing, that the “Bo” on “lock now” was the imprisoned Willie “Bo” Mitchell, and that the reference to “Niggas getting shot for runnin’ they mouth” amounted to witness intimidation. Faced with the prospect of an all-white jury hearing this music in the courtroom, the defense lawyers objected on the grounds that lots of songs have lyrics that “proudly refer to violent retaliation,” offering by way of example country star Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
Nearly two years passed. The wheels of justice were turning, slowly but surely. Then came the memorable hearing in which the defendants debuted the flesh-and-blood defense. After that, everything changed.
A month after the hearing, Judge Davis took the unusual step of issuing a written opinion denying all of the defendant’s “unusual—if not bizarre” arguments. “Perhaps they would even be humorous,” Davis wrote, “were the stakes not so high … It is truly ironic that four African- American defendants here apparently rely on an ideology derived from a famously discredited notion: the illegitimacy of the Fourteenth Amendment.” One can understand his incredulity that four Baltimore drug dealers might invoke a racist argument that dates back to the nineteenth century. But as it turns out, that’s when the seeds of the flesh-and-blood defense were sown.
In 1878, southern Democrats pushed legislation through Congress limiting the ability of the federal government to marshal troops on U.S. soil. Known as Posse Comitatus, (Latin for “power of the county”) the law’s authors hoped to constrain the government’s ability to protect black southerners from violence and discrimination. The act symbolically marked the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.
For the next eight decades, black Americans lived under the yoke of institutional racism. But by the late 1950s, the civil rights movement was growing in strength. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent 1,200 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, so that nine black students could safely enter a previously all-white high school. The landmark Civil Rights Act followed in 1964.
These developments horrified one William Gale, a World War II veteran, insurance salesman, self-styled minister of racist Christian Identity theology, and raving anti-Semite. In 1971, he launched a movement whose impact would reverberate through the radical fringes of American society for decades to come. He called it Posse Comitatus, named for the 1878 law he believed Eisenhower had violated by sending the troops to Little Rock. In a series of tapes and self-published pamphlets, Gale explained that county sheriffs were the supreme legal law enforcement officers in the land, and that county residents had the right to form a posse to enforce the Constitution—however they, as “sovereign citizens,” chose to interpret it. Public officials who interfered, instructed Gale, should be “hung by the neck” at high noon.
Gale’s racist beliefs were hardly unique. His singular innovation was to devise a “legal” philosophy that was enormously appealing to disaffected, alienated citizens. It was a promise of power, a means of asserting that they were the true inheritors of the founding fathers’ ideal, a dream they believed had been corrupted by a vast conspiracy that only they could see. Gale’s ideas gave people on the paranoid edge of society a collective identity. It told them what they desperately wanted to hear: that the federal government was illegitimate, and that the legal weapons the state used to oppress them could be turned against the state.
Soon, Posses were sprouting across the country, attracting veterans of the 1960s-era tax protest movement, Second Amendment absolutists, Christian Identity adherents, and ardent anti-communists who had abandoned the John Birch Society because they felt the organization wasn’t extreme enough. Local groups would meet to share literature, listen to tapes of Gale’s sermons, and discuss preparations for the approaching End Times. This extremist stew produced exotic amalgamations of paranoia, such as when Posse members would explain the need for local militias to stockpile weapons in order to defend white Christians from blacks in the coming race war sparked by the inevitable economic collapse caused by the income tax and a cabal of international Jewish bankers bent on global dominance through one world government, for Satan.
While local Posses would periodically confront law enforcement officials in the 1970s, (usually in property disputes), they were often incompetent, and few people were hurt. But things took a serious turn in 1978, when thousands of farmers rallied in Washington D.C. seeking relief from low commodity prices, high interest rates, and farm debt. When Congressional relief attempts failed, some farmers became susceptible to peddlers of the Posse ideology, which preached that the farm crisis had been brought on by the international Jewish banking conspiracy, abandonment of the gold standard and a malevolent Federal Reserve.
By 1982, Bill Gale had flown to Kansas to conduct paramilitary training and indoctrination for splinter groups of disaffected farmers. At night, a country music station in Dodge City broadcast tapes of Gale’s sermons. “You’re either going to get back to the Constitution of the United States in your government,” he intoned, “or officials are gonna hang by the neck until they’re dead … Arise and fight! If a Jew comes near you, run a sword through him.” As Posse ideology rippled across the distressed farm belt, violence followed. Several deadly confrontations between Posse adherents and law enforcement made national headlines; Geraldo Rivera descended on Nebraska to document the “Seeds of Hate” in America’s heartland. By 1987, Gale’s rhetoric had escalated further. He told his followers that “You’ve got an enemy government running around … its source and its location is Washington, D.C., and the federal buildings they’ve built with your tax money all over the cities in this land.”
Hucksters and charlatans prowled the Midwest as the farm crisis deepened, selling desperate farmers expensive seminars and prepackaged legal defenses “guaranteed” to cancel debts and forestall foreclosure. Since the gold standard had been abandoned in 1933, they argued, money had no inherent value, and so neither did their debts. All they had to do, farmers were told, was opt out of the system by sending a letter to the appropriate authorities renouncing their driver’s license, birth certificate, and social security number. That number was allegedly tied to a secret government account held in a secure subterranean facility in lower Manhattan, where citizens are used as collateral against international debts issued by the Fed and everyone’s name is on a master list, spelled in capital letters—the very same capital letters used in the official court documents detailing foreclosure and other actions against them. The capital letter name was nothing but an artificial construct, they were told, a legal “straw man.” It wasn’t them—natural, live, flesh and blood men.
Bill Gale died on April 28, 1988, three months after being sentenced in federal court for conspiracy, tax crimes, and mailing death threats to the Internal Revenue Service. By that time, the farm crisis had begun to recede. Posse ideology simmered for the next few years, morphing into the “Christian Patriot” movement, which sanded down some of the roughest racist and anti-Semitic edges while retaining the core beliefs of Constitutional fundamentalism. The patriots saw themselves as “sovereign citizens,” unlike the “federal citizens” who had been created by the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The deadly confrontations between federal agents and extremists at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993 brought latent anger with the federal government back to a boil. The militia movement of the 1990s built on Posse tenets of county- based, self-organized paramilitary groups led by citizens expressing their basic Constitutional rights. Most groups stuck with conducting survivalist training camps and filing bogus liens against houses owned by local judges. But a few did much more.
In 1993, a Michigan farmer and survivalist named James Nichols was pulled over for speeding. Instead of simply paying the fine, he argued in court that his “sovereign citizen” status made him immune to prosecution. That same year, James’ brother Terry tried to pay off a $17,000 debt with a fake check issued by a radical “family farm preservation” group run by Posse adherents. Two years later, Terry Nichols helped to bring the Posse’s anti-government hatred to its ultimate fruition. On April 18, 1995, he and a friend named Timothy McVeigh loaded 108 fifty-pound bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer into a Ryder truck. The next day, McVeigh bombed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people on the second anniversary of Waco.
After the attack, the Feds began cracking down on white supremacist groups, including one called the “Montana Freemen,” who were, in the words of hate-group expert Daniel Levitas, “the direct ideological descendants of the Posse Comitatus.” (Levitas’ book, The Terrorist Next Door, contains the definitive account of Bill Gale and the Posse.) The Freemen were arrested in their isolated compound after a threemonth standoff with the FBI. At trial, they filed an array of bizarre documents citing the Fed, the gold standard, the 14th Amendment, and the Uniform Commercial Code, but to no avail. They were sent to the maximum security “Supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colorado, where they remain today.
But the appeal of their anti-government dogma didn’t disappear. The Freemen continued to attract sympathizers outside Supermax walls. Some collected the documents the Freemen filed during their trial and began offering them for sale via adver tisements in “America’s Bulletin,” a newsletter espousing Posse- style anti-government theories that is widely distributed throughout the prison system by white supremacists.
In October 2004, a prisoner named Michael Burpee arrived at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in downtown Baltimore. Burpee had recently been convicted in Florida of trafficking PCP to Maryland. Hoping for leniency, he pled guilty, only to receive a twenty seven-year prison sentence dictated by harsh federal sentencing guidelines. Desperate for a way out, he began listening to someone—presumably a fellow prisoner—who explained how the charges were all part of a secret government conspiracy against him. Then Burpee was brought up on new federal drug charges in Maryland, and shipped north. He carried with him a pile of documents that were remarkably similar to those that had been filed by the Montana Freemen.
In Baltimore, Burpee found a group of inmates at the margins of society, people like Willie Mitchell and company who were staring at the full force of the federal government. As one defense attorney representing a flesh-and-blood defendant put it, they “saw a freight train coming and felt three feet tall.” Soon the unorthodox legal filings and courtroom outbursts began to multiply. It was, one public defender later explained, “like an infection that was invading our client population of pre-trial detainees.” Burpee appears to have been patient zero in the epidemic. For over a year, he harangued his lawyers and judge about the conspiracy and spread the word in the Baltimore lockup. Then, in a stroke of bad luck for the public defender’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to drop the charges against Burpee—perhaps reasoning that he wasn’t worth the hassle considering that he had already been sentenced to twenty-seven years. For Burpee’s peers, the decision imbued the flesh-and-blood defense with legitimacy and the hope of freedom.
Before long, the relatives of the defendants were scanning Web sites like www.redemptionservice.com, which offers maps showing how Satanic runes were secretly incorporated into the street plan of Washington, D.C., and a deluxe package of instructions for renouncing one’s social security number for only $3,900, payable by check or money order.
Like the Midwestern farmers before them, the Baltimore inmates were susceptible to the notion that the federal government was engaged in a massive, historic plot to deprive them of life, liberty, and property. Such suspicions are prevalent in certain pockets of the black community—that year, a study from the Rand Corporation found that over 25 percent of African Americans surveyed believed the AIDS virus was developed by the government, and 12 percent thought it was released into the population by the CIA. And black separatist groups like the Nation of Islam—also fond of conspiracy theories—have long cultivated members through the prison system; some of these groups have explicitly adopted the language of constitutional fundamentalists. Given these developments, Levitas told me, “I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner.”
This, then, was how Willie Mitchell came to draw on the accumulated layers of three decades of right-wing paranoia and demand that his case be dismissed “in accord with … House Joint Resolution 192, and Public Law 73-10”—laws that involved the abandonment of the gold standard and the Federal Reserve. And it explained why Shawn Gardner kept insisting that he be addressed as “Shawn-Earl: Gardner,” rather than the capital-letter SHAWN GARDNER printed on the indictment: he thought that if he could convince the court to call him by his “natural” name, it would be tantamount to admitting that the charges had been filed against someone else.
On the morning of January 10, 2006, two months after the first flesh-and-blood hearing, Gardner returned to Judge Davis’s courtroom. Moments after Davis arrived, Gardner stood up. “I object,” he said, over and over, until Judge Davis had finally had enough. “Do you know what you’re doing?” he asked Gardner. “You are committing suicide in broad daylight. There are public suicides in this country far too often. People jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge. People walk into their workplaces with a gun and put the gun up to their head and pull the trigger. People slash their wrists. I don’t want you to join that community, but that’s what you’re doing, sir.”
Gardner tried to argue that the court had no power over him under “common law.” “At common law,” Judge Davis replied, “you were property. You were bought and sold just like those Timberlands on your feet today can be bought and sold. That’s what your ancestors were, some of them, and that is what my ancestors were, some of them.”
“You have invoked ideas formulated and advanced by people who think less of you than they think of dirt,” Davis continued. “The extremists who have concocted these ideas that you are now advancing in this courtroom are laughing their heads off. You are giving them everything they ever wished for. They should be paying you to do what you are doing. They are going to make you the poster child for their movement. When you complete this suicide, they will honor you because you are doing their work, better and more effectively than any of them ever dreamed they could do. Some of them—” “I object,” said Gardner, interrupting. “The government wants to do the same thing anyway. So what’s the difference?”
Gardner, unrepentant, was escorted from the courtroom. And so the tenets of Posse Comitatus continued their long, strange journey, from the racist, hate-filled mind of William Gale to four black defendants on trial for their life in Baltimore federal court.
A little more than a year after the November 2005 hearing, the flesh-and-blood phenomenon took another twist. A key part of the conspiracy indictment against Mitchell et al was the allegation that the defendants acted together in pursuit of criminal goals. The seemingly choreographed speeches and the identical filings, all submitted on the same day and mailed by the same person, suggested that the four defendants were going to great lengths to coordinate their actions, despite being housed in separate prison facilities and having no obvious means of communication. Ergo, evidence that the conspiracy was continuing in jail. The U.S. Attorney’s office also added new charges of felony obstruction of justice, citing the disruptive nature of the fleshand- blood defense. The prosecutors weren’t just rejecting the defense as an argument for innocence. They were saying that it was, itself, a crime.
Undaunted, Mitchell and company continued making courtroom speeches and filing more nonsensical motions. One, for instance, claimed that Judge Davis’ court only had jurisdiction over crimes committed in federally owned “forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and enclaves.”
None of these arguments had a prayer of overturning the charges. But they had an impact nonetheless. They made a long, complex trial longer and more complex still. Seeking the death penalty is rightfully arduous—it requires legal justifications for the penalty itself, enhanced scrutiny over jury selection, an additional penalty phase after a conviction, and so on. Conspiracy charges create further legal burdens. And the way Mitchell et al chose to deal with their attorneys— not dismissing them outright, but asking them to sign a peculiar “contract” that would essentially prohibit them from mounting a defense—created more problems. If the defendants weren’t dealt with carefully, they might be able to appeal by claiming that they had been inadequately represented. The last thing Judge Davis wanted was for an appellate court to throw out a verdict and send the case back to Baltimore to start all over again. According to a source close to the court, dealing with the flesh and blood defense has been “one of the greatest challenges Davis has faced in twenty years as a judge, by far.”
By mid-2007, the federal prosecutors were starting to run low on a vital resource: time. As years go by, memories fade, police officers retire or transfer, informants change their mind, and juries wonder, why, if the case is so straightforward, it took so long to make. On September 6, 2007, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty for all four defendants.
Nobody in the Baltimore federal courthouse is willing to state, or even speculate on the record, that Mitchell and his cohorts may have averted death with the flesh-and-blood defense. There are other possibilities involving evidence, witnesses, and Justice Department policy. But the elaborate processes of federal capital cases weren’t built to accommodate farcical pro se filings and challenges. Traffic offenses, tax cases—even farm foreclosures—are one thing. When the end goal is execution, even the most ludicrous defenses are taken seriously.
On January 8, 2008, the case of United States of America v. Willie Mitchell et al convened once again in the main courtroom of the federal courthouse. The lawyers arrived first, chatting in the manner of people who had spent nearly four years and counting on the odyssey of this case. The defendants came next. While Shawn Gardner wore the blue work shirt of a lifer in state prison, Willie Mitchell sported comfortable baggy jeans and a stylish black shirt. Mitchell sauntered to his table, and spied the lone spectator in the courtroom’s auditorium-style gallery of one hundred- plus seats, a slender black woman who looked to be in her late twenties. His eyes lit up as he smiled and mouthed “How are you?” “I’m good, I’m good” she murmured. “Your new lawyer—get his card!”
Judge Davis arrived last, emerging from a wooden door behind the bench, beneath oil portraits of judges from days gone by. The hearing will be short, he said; the purpose is to establish a schedule for future motions, and ultimately the trial. Davis and the lawyers spent the next twenty minutes trying find eight weeks of available courtroom time for ten busy lawyers plus the judge. Then, apropos of nothing, Shelton Harris stood up. “Good morning your honor,” he began. Davis saw where this was going and cut him off. “I haven’t recognized you yet, Mr. Harris. You’ll have time to talk later,” he said. “I accept your offer,” Harris replied softly, and sat down.
The scheduling discussion continued; Mitchell rested his head in his arms as though bored. Finally, Judge Davis allowed Harris to speak. Harris launched into the now familiar oration—”I request you, the judge, close the accounts…” He spoke rapidly in a low, gravelly voice, as if he’d worked hard to memorize the speech and didn’t want to leave anything out.
Harris finished, sat, and Judge Davis turned to the defendants. The speech you just gave has no legal meaning whatsoever, he said sternly. They were words in the English language, but they have no meaning as a matter of law. If, in future proceedings, you persist—even politely—in making these speeches, you face a severe risk of being expelled from the courtroom. The court also may conclude that you are waiving your right to appointed counsel, in which case you would have to represent yourself. That would be a sad day. “We are in recess,” Davis said. He turned back toward the door to leave.
Then several things happened at once. Shawn Gardner, handcuffed, slumped in the arms of the federal marshals, who seized him beneath his armpits and dragged him across the courtroom toward the door. Willie Mitchell raised his right hand to speak, intent on giving his version of Harris’ speech, but the marshals grabbed his arm and forced it down behind his back toward his left wrist, which was already cuffed. Mitchell struggled and yelled at his lawyer, “They got my arm in a chicken wing!” The marshals forcibly moved Martin and Harris toward the door. Judge Davis watched with consternation as they were dragged from his court.
Willie Mitchell and company won’t go on trial until September, if then, and they won’t face the death penalty, even though they probably deserve it if anyone does. But they will probably be convicted and spend the rest of their lives in federal prison, never to be heard from again, because in the end, the flesh-and-blood defense is no defense at all. The 14th Amendment didn’t revoke Shawn Gardner’s natural citizenship— it gave him protection under the law, and paved the way for another black man to judge his case. There’s no international cabal of Jewish bankers conspiring against him— one of his lawyers, a professor at Howard University Law School, is Jewish. The secret histories and grand conspiracies that have fueled decades of right-wing paranoia, morphing to accommodate one doomed cause after another until finding an unlikely temporary home in a Baltimore lockup, are lies and nothing more.
As the marshals shoved the four men toward the courtroom door, back to the prison they’ll never leave, they shook their heads and looked at each other smiling, as if to say right, right, isn’t it always just like this? One of them let out a chuckle that rose above the din. Judge Davis turned to the court reporter. “Let the record show,” he said, “that Mr. Harris is laughing.”
Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, DC.