Marion Barry Thal: 1990

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Marion Barry Thal: 1990

Defendant: Marion Barry, Jr.
Crime Charged: Drug offenses (14 counts)
Chief Defense Lawyers: Robert Mance and Kenneth Mundy
Chief Prosecutors: Judith Retchin and Richard Roberts
Judge: Thomas Penfield Jackson
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: June 4-August 10, 1990
Verdict: Guilty on 1 count of cocaine possession; Not guilty on 1 count; Mistrial on remaining 12 counts
Sentence: 6 months imprisonment, $5,000 fine, 1 year probation

SIGNIFICANCE: The sensational arrest of Marion Barry guaranteed that the ensuing trial would be high drama. But almost no one could have predicted such a remarkable verdict or Barry's political comeback.

For years Washington, D.C., had buzzed with rumors that Mayor Marion Barry had a drug problem. Concrete proof came January 18, 1990, when Barry entered Room 726 at the Vista International Hotel to keep an assignation with ex-girlfriend Rasheeda Moore. After rejecting Barry's sexual advance, Moore produced a pipe for smoking cocaine. (Barry had earlier given Moore $20 to buy some crack cocaine.) Seconds after Barry put the pipe to his lips, half a dozen FBI agents and other police officers rushed into the room and arrested him. The sting had worked perfectly: Every incident had been captured on videotape.

On June 19, 1990, prosecutor Richard Roberts outlined Barry's six-year involvement with drugs, emphasizing the mayor's hypocrisy:

"During the course of this trial, you will learn that while the defendant preached "Down with dope!' he was putting dope up his nose. Every person has two sides. This case is about the other side, the secret side of Marion Barry."

The star prosecution witness was Charles Lewis, a confessed drug dealer. He first met Barry in the Virgin Islands in June 1986. "He asked me if I could get some rocks [crack cocaine]. I told him yes." According to Lewis, Barry's drug binge included straight cocaine and marijuana, as well.

Chief defense counsel Kenneth Mundy, deriding Lewis' claim that conscience had prompted his testimony, scoffed, "You didn't wake up and start cooperating [with the authorities] until you got convicted in the Virgin Islands, is that correct?"

"Both things happened at the same time."

"You were facing big time weren't you?"

"The reason I waited."

"Is that a yes or a no?" barked Mundy.

"Yes," Lewis admitted.

For three days Mundy kept up the attack, extracting one damaging concession after another from Lewis. It was a superb feat of advocacy, one which gave the prosecution pause for thought: Perhaps their case wasn't so airtight after all?

Violent Relationship

Help was at handRasheeda Moore. She detailed a three-year liaison with Barry, plagued with drugs and occasional violence, that put the prosecution back on track. It was during her testimony that the Vista videotape was played. Mundy grilled Moore about her backgroundhardly exemplaryportraying her as out to get Barry because he had ditched her for another woman. He also scored points with her admission that she had used drugs in April 1990, three months after the Vista sting.

"It's something I have to deal with everyday," said Moore, referring to her cocaine addiction. When Mundy suggested that the receipt of several thousand dollars from the government had loosened her tongue, Moore demurred. Her decision to set Barry up, she said, had resulted from a revival of religious belief.

Because Barry declined to testify on his own behalf, the defense comprised mainly of witnesses who placed Barry elsewhere at times when he was supposed to have participated in alleged drug deals.

On August 2, 1990, the jury began deliberations. More than a week later they announced themselves hopelessly deadlocked on all except two counts, one guilty, the other not guilty. Judge Thomas Jackson had no alternative but to declare a mistrial on the remaining 12 charges. Later, in a public attack, Judge Jackson suggested that some jurors had been less than forthcoming about their true feelings during the impanelment process, telling a Harvard Law School class that he had "never seen a stronger government case" than the one mounted against Barry.

The final act in this drama came October 26, 1990, when Judge Jackson sentenced Barry to six months imprisonment, a fine and probation. The verdict temporarily derailed Barry's political career, reinforcing the perception in some quarters that that had been the intent all along. After completing his jail term, Barry was elected in November 1992 to Washington's city council.

The most remarkable political comeback in recent U.S. history continued. Apparently perceived by the Washington electorate as more sinned against than sined. Barry stunned his detractors on September 14, 1994, by winning the Democratic nomination for Mayor of the city, the very position he had disgraced just four years earlier. In the primary, he emphatically trounced both of his rivals, including incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly who received just 13 percent of the vote. At the November 8 election, Barry's margin of victory was no less impressive as he garnered 54 percent of the vote to doom the mayoral ambitions of Carol Schwartz, a white Republican. Washington, D.C., is an overwhelmingly African American city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than four to one.

During Barry's four-year term, the city saw it's crime rate increase while the public schools' infrastructure and other public services declined sharply. With a budget deficit of half a billion dollars, the city was soon on the verge of bankruptcy.

In 1995, Congress set up the Financial Control Board to oversee some of the city's day-to-day business. By 1997, municipal authority had been taken away from the city, and the Financial Control Board made most of the decisions, leaving the mayor and the city council virtually powerless. In 1998, in what many observers considered to be a surprise, Barry announced that he would not seek another term as mayor of Washington, D.C.

Colin Evans and

Ron Formica

Suggestions for Further Reading

Agronsky, Jonathan I.Z. Maion Barn: The Politics Of Race. Latham, N.Y.: British American, 1991.

Morley, Jefferson. "Crack in the Washington Culture." The Nation (February 19, 1990): 221ff.

Puddington, Arch. Insight (June 3, 1991): 44-45.

Starr, Richard. Insight (February 5, 1990): 22ff.

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Marion Barry Thal: 1990

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