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How Baltimore drug trafficker “Richie Rich” Wilford destroyed his own defense

February 19, 2014

Richie-Rich-300x291For those fighting federal drug-trafficking charges, the story of Richard Anthony “Richie Rich” Wilford is a cautionary tale.

As was eventually proven at a December trial that ended with a jury conviction on his 41st birthday, Wilford would ship cash to California in hollowed-out DVD players and VCRs, and receive coke from California in hollowed-out computer towers. All told, the government holds him responsible for bringing to Baltimore nearly 200 kilograms of coke worth almost $6 million.

Wilford fought the charges tooth and nail, saying law enforcers’ surveillance tactics in pursuing him amounted to unconstitutional over-reach. His arguments were not persuasive, though his long-time lawyer, William Purpura – a respected veteran before the federal bench in Maryland – advanced them as well as anyone could.

But Wilford’s judgment has always been poor. That’s why he ended up on a third trip to federal court on drug-trafficking charges, and why he chose, unwisely, to go on the lam after the indictment was handed down against him and his co-defendants in 2011 – a choice that, as usual, ended with him in handcuffs.

On Feb. 17, Purpura finally had had enough of Wilford. He filed a motion to be relieved of having to represent him any longer. And that motion reveals not only the lengths Purpura claims to have taken in mounting a defense, but how poorly Wilford seems to have managed the case against him. Here are a few salient points from it:

-         Purpura managed to secure a guilty-plea offer “for a third time federal offender” that “could have resulted in a favorable sentence and the return of certain specified assets,” yet Wilford “followed his own advice, declined the government’s offer and demanded full litigation of all legal issues and a trial” – a decision that, now that he’s convicted, has left him facing “a mandatory minimum of 20 years up to a maximum sentence of life” at sentencing, which is scheduled for tomorrow.

-         Purpura mounted a defense at trial that “kept the jury out for approximately 8 hours over two days. Counsel repeatedly met with Mr. Wilford prior to trial, called witnesses requested by him, and maintained a record complete with objections to all prior legal issues raised …”

-         During the many months of pre-trial motions battles, Purpura “reviewed in excess of 1000 pages of discovery with Mr. Wilford during numerous visits with him” at the federal detention facility in Baltimore and “also reviewed with Mr. Wilford the applicable law on all relevant and non-relevant legal issues that were identified.”

-         Purpura, in order to ensure that Wilford “was clearly informed of the law on numerous legal issues,” retained another lawyer – Marta Kahn, “an expert on legal writing and research” – “to further educate Mr. Wilford on the state of the law,” while also employing two law clerks “to conduct research and aid in drafting motions, and to respond to daily letters by Mr. Wilford over a two- year period.”

-         Purpura asked for, and got, a commitment from another well-respected attorney, Joshua Treem, to represent Wilford on appeal.

It goes on, but the point of Purpura’s motion was to show U.S. District judge Ellen Hollander how thoroughly and assiduously he’d pursued Wilford’s best interests, and yet, in thanks, Wilford has “repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction and lack of trust in” Purpura in letters written to the court. So Purpura eloquently asked to be relieved of his duties as Wilford’s attorney, writing:

“Counsel is confident that Mr. Wilford received exceptionally competent and complete legal representation in every aspect of this litigation. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear from his conduct and his repeated correspondence with the Court that counsel cannot continue representing Mr. Wilford. Mr. Wilford is facing sentencing in an extremely serious matter, and needs to have counsel whom he can trust. Counsel has done all that he can do for this defendant and, therefore, for the first time in 35 years of practice, counsel has been placed in a position where counsel has no ethical choice but to request the Court to relieve counsel from further representing Mr. Wilford.”

Hollander granted Purpura’s motion. It remains to be seen how much more than 20 years in prison Wilford will receive, but he shot himself in the foot by forcing Purpura to abandon him on the eve of his sentencing.