City Paper is not for tourists
David Wilson, an inmate convicted for being the getaway driver in a D.C. murder case, uncovered the existence of a confession he says will exonerate him, but nobody can find the tape. Reporter Jim McElhatton has covered D.C. crime for years and witnessed this intersection between Wilson’s case and disgraced FBI agent Matthew Lowry during his reporting.
George Ball took a rare afternoon off from his job as a meeting planner for a trade group to spend some time in a U.S. District courtroom. He was attending the July 9 sentencing of Matthew Lowry, the FBI agent who pleaded guilty to taking at least 20 bags of seized heroin—some containing hundreds of grams—from the FBI’s evidence room.
Ball is one of more than two dozen drug defendants whose cases were tossed because Lowry tainted the evidence. There’s been much press attention about how the Lowry case robbed the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office of the chance to try complicated drug conspiracy cases that can take years to investigate and prosecute.
The courtroom was packed with reporters and family, so Ball, 67, was nearly turned away. He insisted on a seat. After more than an hour, he said, he found himself sitting alongside Lowry’s family, near the front row.
“I was determined to see how justice works on the other side of the case,” Ball later tells City Paper in an interview.
Ball says Lowry’s conviction actually robbed him of the chance to clear his name, and that he didn’t want to see his own charges dismissed on a technicality. He says that even though he risked more than decade in prison, he told his attorney that he wouldn’t be pleading guilty.
“The whole time I was under this cloud for a year and half, never was my name associated with the word ‘innocent,’” Ball says. “I kind of feel sorry that Lowry got into this trouble because now I’m in this limbo. Every time they talk about me—the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney—they describe me as a drug dealer. I wasn’t.”
Ball wasn’t just thinking about his own case when he attended the Lowry sentencing. He recalled coming to the same courthouse a few years earlier to watch the sentencing of his son, Antwuan, a co-defendant with David Wilson in the Congress Park Crew case. Antwuan was acquitted of all but one of the charges against him: a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack transaction recorded by an undercover informant.
Still, Antwuan Ball received a sentence of nearly two decades in prison. That’s largely because Judge Richard Roberts found that, for sentencing purposes, Ball was part of a drug conspiracy—even though jurors acquitted him of the conspiracy charge. Under federal rules, however, judges can hand out tougher sentences based on charges the jury rejected or never heard at trial.
Antwuan Ball’s appeals lawyer, Stephen Leckar, argued in court papers that Ball would have received a little under five years—at most—if sentenced solely on the drug quantities of which he was convicted. The judge’s finding nearly quadrupled his sentence to just under 19 years.
He remembers the difficult time he had leaving the courtroom after his son’s sentencing four years earlier.
“When I went to my son’s sentencing, I was 100 percent positive that he was coming home with me that day,” Ball says. “I just felt so good. Then I was going through my head, huh, 200-something months? After everybody left I couldn’t move. Everybody was outside wondering where I was at, but I couldn’t move because I could not believe this.”
Ball and two co-defendants, facing similarly long sentences in the Congress Park case, appealed theirs. They fell just one vote short of having their case heard in the Supreme Court last year. The appeal produced an unlikely dissent that joined the court’s most liberal and conservative factions: Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsburg all sought to accept the case.
After Lowry’s sentencing, George Ball walked out of the hearing shaking his head, wondering how the same courthouse could send his son away for more than 18 years for a half-ounce. The ex-FBI agent got three years.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery