Seven weeks after rape defendant Gujan A. Lee surprised attorneys by turning down a plea agreement they had forged in his case, he accepted an almost identical agreement Sept. 23 in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Lee, 19, formerly of Washington, D.C., pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape, one count of first-degree sex offense, one count of first-degree burglary and one count of robbery with a dangerous or deadly weapon in connection with the Sept. 6, 2004 rape and robbery of a 19-year-old Potomac woman in her home on Falls Chapel Way.
Those charges would normally carry a possible sentence of two life terms plus 40 years, but his incarceration will be limited to a single life sentence under the agreement. The state also dropped four lesser charges as part of the deal.
The only change from the agreement that Lee steered away from at an Aug. 1 hearing was that the state agreed to remain silent at sentencing regarding what prison Lee should be placed in.
Lee hopes to be placed in Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Md., which has a youthful offender program, according to his attorney Loyd Byron Hopkins. The program, established by the Maryland Legislature in 1994, is available to offenders 21 years old and younger, who must be referred by a judge at the time of sentencing.
Circuit Court Judge James L. Ryan said he would consider the placement, but reminded Lee that his acceptance is ultimately up to the institution.
The life sentence cap is meaningful because Lee has no prior criminal record and if he is accepted at Patuxent, could be released in perhaps 40 to 60 years even if he receives a life sentence. With multiple life sentences, such an outcome would be nearly impossible.
ACCORDING TO POLICE reports, court documents and statements made in court, four men entered a house on Falls Chapel Way during the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 2004.
The men were Lee, then 18, formerly of Washington, D.C., Schmouree Fordyce-Williams, then 19, formerly of Potomac, Chris Benbow, 17, of Upper Marlboro, and Kevin Croker, then 17, of Potomac.
According to prosecutors, Lee, Fordyce-Williams and Benbow woke up a woman in her basement bedroom, questioned her about valuables in the house, threatened her and raped and sexually assaulted her. Croker entered the victim's bedroom but then left the house and did not participate in the sex crimes. He later returned to help take items from the house, according to court testimony.
A fifth man, Daniel Smith, took a key from the house while at a party two days earlier with the intention of coming back and stealing a laptop computer and other items. He provided the key but did not enter the house with the other men Sept. 6.
Three of the co-defendants have avoided trial by entering guilty pleas to certain charges under agreements that cap their maximum possible sentences.
Fordyce-Williams, a senior at Winston Churchill High School at the time of the crimes, pleaded guilty May 10 to one count of first-degree sex offense, one count of first-degree burglary, one count of conspiracy to commit burglary, and one count of robbery with a dangerous weapon. His possible sentence will be capped at 25 years of incarceration and four other charges against him dropped.
Two weeks earlier, Benbow pleaded guilty to first-degree rape and first-degree burglary under an agreement almost identical to Fordyce-Williams', with his possible sentence capped at 20 years.
Smith pleaded guilty Feb. 23 in Circuit Court to three counts: first-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit first-degree burglary and accessory after the fact to robbery with a dangerous and deadly weapon.
Smith, a former resident of Avenel who currently lives in Germantown, faces a maximum sentence of 45 years in prison.
LEE, WHO HAS been unpredictable in court, at times seemed close to undermining the proposed plea agreement again Friday.
“I feel I haven’t been treated fairly in this case,” he said to Ryan during the standard questioning to confirm the plea. “With my plea agreement. … Everybody’s been given low pleas. I don’t understand.”
Since Smith, Benbow, and Fordyce-Williams had agreed to testify against their co-defendants at trial, Lee was in a less favorable negotiating position than they were.
“He has very strong feelings about what he did and about what everyone else did. He thought it was unfair the way the state had handled his co-defendants,” his defense attorney Hopkins said. “That is something that has never sat well with Mr. Lee.”
“They did target him,” Hopkins said. “That’s the way the system works unfortunately. There’s no honor among thieves.”
Lee also said at one point that he was not guilty of all of the charges he was pleading guilt to.
Ryan gave Lee several chances to change his responses to questions and worked patiently to address all of Lee’s concerns.
“I don’t want somebody else to say, somewhere down the line, that this guy was pushed around,” Ryan said.
Lee responded, “I just ask you guys to help me. Help me with my drug problem. I just ask that I be helped, and not be railroaded.”
THE SEPT. 23 agreement is the last in a series of unpredictable turns in Lee’s case.
Hopkins filed an insanity plea Aug. 22 stating that Lee suffered from “organic mental defects” as a result of his mother’s crack cocaine use while she was pregnant with Lee. The insanity motion came less than two weeks after Hopkins became the third attorney to represent Lee. Tara Harrison withdrew in March for personal reasons not related to the case.
Barbara Graham, an attorney appointed by the Office of the Public Defender, replaced her and forged the first plea agreement with State’s Attorney Deborah Armstrong. Lee apparently changed his mind during hearing to confirm the plea and asked for a trial.
Graham left the case after Lee submitted a letter saying he was unsatisfied with his representation, according to Armstrong. That made way for Hopkins, who said he received a desperate call from the public defender’s office asking him to take over on very short notice.
“Barbara Graham did a great job on the case. Absolutely stellar,” Hopkins said. “I think the only difference between Barbara and I is I’m black and a male and Barbara is white and a woman.”
Hopkins said that Lee felt suspicious that the attorneys appointed by the pubic defender's office were in cahoots with the state’s attorneys, since both are employed by the state, and that his being black and male mitigated some of those concerns.
“I was just lucky enough and good enough to get back what Mr. Lee unwittingly refused,” Hopkins said. “This case smacks of race and it smacks of money. Those two things were a huge consideration in how this case got handled.”
Four of the defendants in the case were African-Americans, and one, Kevin Croker, was white. Croker faced less-severe charges than the other defendants because evidence showed that he left the victim's room shortly after the sexual assault began.
However, Croker also provided the gun used in the crimes and later disposed of it by throwing it into the woods, according to police and court testimony.
He is reportedly incarcerated in a juvenile facility until age 21.
In a Sept. 2 hearing, Ryan struck the insanity plea and denied Hopkins’ motion to further delay trial because he was unprepared to represent Lee with such little time to learn the case history and study thousands of pages of evidence. The trial remained scheduled to go forward starting Sept. 19.
But following the hearing, the state agreed to allow the continuance that Hopkins had fought for in the hearing.
“The state was playing politics. There was no way Mr. Lee was going to get a fair trial had the case gone forward this week,” Hopkins said. “This thing would have been reversed in 10 seconds after conviction. It was just that glaring.”
Hopkins objected three times during the state’s proffer of evidence, which he called "grandstanding" but Ryan allowed the sometimes grisly details to continue when prosecutor Jason Abbott said that he was merely presenting the same evidence the state would have presented at trial.