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Baltimore Spectator to go free

May 8, 2013

Spectator Before the trialA 38-year-old cab driver and citizen journalist known as The Baltimore Spectator pleaded guilty to possession of a sawed-off shotgun today, receiving time served and three years probation in a closely-watched case that began last December with a live-tweeted standoff with a Baltimore SWAT team.

Apollos Frank-James MacArthur, who has been held without bail since the December 1, 2012 incident, received a prison term of three years—all but six months suspended—plus a $500 fine. Since he has been in jail for more than five months and the Department of Corrections gives “good time” credits, his lawyer says he will be freed tomorrow morning.

“No matter how you calculate it, he should get out tomorrow,” Attorney Mark Van Bavel said.

The hearing at Baltimore City Circuit Court was tense at times. Judge Alfred Nance repeatedly scolded people in the court room for their attire and other minor violations of courtroom etiquette. About 40 people attended the hearing, at least half a dozen of whom whipped out cell phones after the sentences was read and began recording an impromptu press conference with Van Bavel in the hallway outside courtroom 556. A bailiff warned everyone they could not record inside the court house.

The crowd actually cheered when Van Bavel told them MacArthur would be free. The charismatic, deep-voiced defendant, who has railed against police injustices mostly committed against himself, has developed a devoted following during his months in jail.

MacArthur, who once volunteered as a reporter for the Investigative Voice website and became a fixture around crime scenes, often with a microphone with which he recorded podcasts and internet radio segments, was on probation for another sawed-off shotgun violation last summer when he learned he was wanted for a probation violation. Instead of turning himself in, he stalled, and then began taunting police via twitter and other media. He said the original charge was bogus, and that he would harm or kill anyone who tried to take him on the violation of probation charge.

Since his incarceration the Indy Reader has published a couple of pieces about his predicament, and MacArthur himself wrote one about conditions inside the city jail. Some thought he would try to use his trial to indict the criminal justice system itself. Nance scolded MacArthur several times during the hearing. During the standard litany of rights and obligations read to all defendants when they take a plea bargain, the defendant is asked if he was “coerced” to plead guilty. MacArthur laughed as he said no, and Nance pounced:

“I am not laughing,” the judge said. “This is a serious matter.” He warned MacArthur that he would withdraw his plea and force him to trial if he did not straighten out.

Later in the hearing, Van Bavel told MacArthur he had the right to address the court in “elocution,” adding that “my strong advice at this juncture is that you waive that right.”

MacArthur waived his right.

Nance told MacArthur that because he has a prior conviction for a similar offense, if he comes back to court for any reason he could find himself serving out the balance of the suspended sentence—and if he is caught with a gun again “you can expect to do about five years.”

Nance told MacArthur he had to be employed during his probation, and that he would be referred for mental health services. His lawyer explained later that the referral was mandatory, though MacArthur was already evaluated by the court and found competent.

He will have to report to the city’s gun offender monitoring unit.

MacArthur’s name is spelled myriad ways in public records, which also show at least two different birthdates. He appears as James MacArthur, James McArthur, Frank, and many combinations of these. The confusion continued even today.

During a discussion with the prosecutor MacArthur again spelled his last name, which was apparently wrong in the record they had. Nance then asked him—for the first time—to spell his first name.

“Apollos,” he replied, repeating each letter. “My name was changed recently—well, several years ago, to Apollos. Let’s keep it simple—“

“—I am keeping it simple,” Nance replied.

MacArthur then said that Frank-James “with a hyphen” is his middle name. He began to talk about computerized records and how they drop one of the middle names.

“I am interested in the first and last,” Nance said.

Outside the courtroom, Van Bavel told the crowd of MacArthur supporters and journalists that his client “wasn’t happy” with the ordeal he had endured or the guilty plea he just entered. “His house is in foreclosure, his radio equipment is not in the shape he left it,” Van Bavel said, adding that he pleaded guilty because if he had demanded a trial it was unlikely that he would get one before late June or July, adding six to eight weeks in jail to the time he’s already spent.

Van Bavel praised Judge Nance: “What he did today, given his position, is fair and courageous.”