Willie Featherstone is about to be set free again, and that concerns a local non-profit that works with women.
"I can't believe this rapist murderer is getting out of prison!" says the non-profit's director, who asked not to be named because she feared for her safety. "The state's attorney bungled a rape case for one of our clients and tested her horribly and this is the result."
In early May, she received notice of Featherstone's pending release from the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility through the Vine Network, a state subscription service that allows people to sign up to be notified of any changes in a convict's status.
"These updates should only be one part of your safety plan," the Vine Network's recorded message admonishes. "Take precautions as though the offender has already been released."
City Paper readers may recall Featherstone from a 2010 cover story freelancer Hal Riedl penned examining his criminal history—and the missteps that prosecutors had made for three decades.
Featherstone was sentenced to 10 years for a 1973 armed robbery. He escaped from prison in 1977, was re-captured in 1981, was sentenced to an additional year for the escape, then paroled the next year, Reidl wrote.
In July 1987, Judge John Prevas sentenced Featherstone to 30 years in prison—the maximum allowed—for second degree murder. The evidence showed that Featherstone had raped or attempted to rape two different girls, and murdered one of them—Trudy Levin, a 15-year-old relative of Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan—by smashing her head with a concrete block near the railroad tracks at Loch Raven Road and East 25th Street. Featherstone was on parole when he committed these crimes.
In December 2006, Featherstone was paroled again. He had by then served nearly 20 years of his sentence. He returned to his old habits, getting locked up for 33 days on a cocaine possession charge in the spring of 2007 before being set free for time-served. He was then re-jailed pending a parole revocation hearing, since the coke charge violated his parole. But three days after that hearing, Featherstone was set free again: In his 19 years in prison he had earned 3,216 "diminution credits," nearly 10 years off his sentence, for good behavior.
At that point Featherstone was still under state supervision, and another arrest could have sent him back to prison to serve out those final 10 years. He did violate the terms of release, and was scheduled in court on May 12, 2009, to face those charges.
On the night before that, Featherstone beat and raped a 31-year-old woman near the same spot by the train tracks where he had killed Levin. He ended up taking a plea bargain for 10 years in that case—concurrent to the time left on the earlier murder charge. That meant that, instead of 18 years, Featherstone was set to spend, given the "good time" credit, about seven years more in prison.
As of the May 6 notification the non-profit director received, he was due to be released "within 30 days." A check last week indicated he was still incarcerated then. He has three days to go.
In the 2010 story, Riedl wrote that he was unable to locate Featherstone's latest victim. But the non-profit director says the woman was very willing to testify against Featherstone at the time.
"To read the quotes in the City Paper that said she wasn't available, or that she wasn't potentially reliable for who she was, was really devastating," she says, "because me, and my personal car, made her available.
"We were working with this woman on a ongoing basis, picking up the slack for the State's Attorney's Office, to support this victim and support her mission, to make sure that this doesn't happen to anyone else."
She says the 2010 article blind-sided her: Neither she nor the victim knew that her rapist was also a murderer. "They didn't bring it up," she says. "I sat in court, I spoke to the prosecutor, the police investigator… and they treated us like we were outsiders. It was very frustrating."
The prosecutor, Aaliyah Muhammad, did not speak to Riedl. She was the main sex crimes prosecutor in the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office for many years, through the tenure of Patricia Jessamy, her successor, Gregg Bernstein, and under Marilyn Mosby. But she has left the office. An email directed to her bounced, and a check of court cases shows her last case was last fall. City Paper was unable to reach her.
"These are hard cases to prove," says Adam Rosenberg, a former city prosecutor who now works at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, which offers victim and witness services in child sexual assault cases. "I know nothing about this case… so in the abstract, there could be 24 different reasons why she wasn't called."
Rosenberg notes that women who have records of prostitution, like this victim does, are hard to use as witnesses. And a 10-year sentence "is a pretty good sentence" for a rapist in the context of 2010.
"I think everybody deserves their day in court. A good prosecutor sometimes has to make difficult decisions," Rosenberg says. "That said, I think prosecutors have an obligation to communicate with the victim."
Rosenberg notes that prosecutors have a lot of cases and are "so obsessed with the homicide number that [they] don't have enough time to look at the sexual assault and child abuse cases."
Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for Mosby's office, says Mosby has begun to revamp the victim services section since taking office last year. Whereas before, the victim advocates would be assigned cases to manage by themselves, now the office is divided into teams—some working on relocation services, others managing the victim's emotional health and offering a menu of other services.
Mosby also instituted a team of "community liaisons" to coordinate the teams. "Now, as soon as we have a victim, we get next of kin… assign the assistant state's attorney, the victim advocate and detective… and we explain all the roles and responsibilities, and we explain what the status of the case is."
She hastens to add: "We started with homicide and are now working on getting one for our sexual assault unit."
Mosby ran her campaign for Baltimore City State's Attorney, in part, on improving victim services. She has also lobbied for the right to introduce relevant prior criminal history information in rape cases, citing the case of Nelson Clifford, an alleged serial rapist who was acquitted of four separate rapes after taking the stand and claiming his victims consented to sex. Clifford was eventually convicted, and the "Prior Acts" bill passed the state senate. But it died in the house.
"There's a string of cases that are like this that occur in Baltimore City," Rosenberg says. "I've lost cases like this. There are men who rape women who are prostitutes, and when they get on the stand, all the guy has to do is say, she was a prostitute, and I paid her.
"If this guy has prior bad acts and we can't introduce that, shame on Maryland law."