No one is denying Mason Thomas Baker, a 22-year-old Juneau man standing trial in federal court for retaliating against a witness, attacked another inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center back in July.
After all, one of the three security cameras in the jail’s gymnasium captured the scene: Baker walked up to an unsuspecting inmate, punched him, and the two exchanged blows on the basketball court. Other inmates nearby didn’t even flinch — they continued shooting hoops and dribbled around them as a corrections officer called for backup.
The question, rather, before the jury selected Tuesday during the first day of Baker’s trial, was why.
In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said the jailhouse assault was retaliation against Milan Thomas, the leader of a lucrative oxycontin ring conspiracy that made millions of dollars transporting prescription pills from Sacramento to Juneau from 2007 to 2011. Just two days prior to the attack, Thomas had rolled over and testified in court against the man who supplied the oxy to the conspiracy, 30-year-old Bloods gang member Richard “Rick” Melvin Corum.
“This case is about the old adage, ‘snitches get stitches,’” Schmidt said, adding that Baker and Corum were cell block-mates.
Not so, said Baker’s attorney Cara McNamara. Jail is an “artificial concrete world,” she said, where “fights can break out for any number of reasons.”
“Getting bad news, losing a chess game, if a bunk is messy,” she said, listing off hypotheticals during her opening statement to the jury. “It’s predators versus prey.”
She countered Schmidt’s allegations by saying a more likely scenario would be that Thomas, who had yet to be sentenced for the four felonies he had pleaded guilty to and who is still facing up to 20 years in prison for each count, thought he was going to get in trouble for the fight.
“Milan had time to think that night (about the fight) ... which could make him look bad at his sentencing,” McNamara said. “So smart, savvy Milan Thomas makes a decision the following morning to make a report.”
The report, the federal public defender said, contained “the magic words” which could get him off the hook. Thomas claimed Baker told him during the assault, “Do you think that you can testify against Rick and get away with it?”
Baker was charged with the federal crime of ‘retaliating against a witness’ shortly thereafter, and he could be facing up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
On Tuesday, Schmidt began working on proving Baker’s intent to the jury by establishing a connection between Baker and Corum. Baker was not involved in the drug ring — he was being held at LCCC for a misdemeanor case that was still in the pretrial phase. Still, Baker ended up in a maximum security jail cell for three days. At the same time, Corum was being held in the adjoining cell as he stood trial in Juneau for drug conspiracy, according to Lt. Kenneth Hoff, the jail’s head of security, who testified for the government.
Schmidt showed the jury pictures of the adjoining cells, which are separated by a 10-inch thick wall but have open face bar doors. Hoff testified it is common for inmates to converse in that unit, especially since they are locked up 23 hours a day (except when they appear in court for hearings, or in Corum’s case, a trial). On cross-examination, McNamara said the jail does not have audio recordings that prove Baker and Corum ever talked.
At Corum’s trial this past summer, Schmidt relied on four co-conspirators — including Thomas — to testify against Corum in exchange for leniency at sentencing. The co-conspirators all testified they bought pills from Corum and then smuggled the pills (or used drug couriers to smuggle the pills) to Juneau to distribute at triple the price. At its peak, the operation was making $2 million a year.
Corum was convicted of the felony drug charge, as well as tampering with a witness for punching Thomas as they were both being held at an Anchorage jail in June 2012. Schmidt had argued the fight, which was also captured on security camera, was an attempt to influence Thomas’ future testimony against Corum at trial.
It’s not yet known if the jury in the current case will hear testimony regarding the fact Thomas was attacked by Corum in jail. While Schmidt argued Tuesday it is crucial to the case, but McNamara argued it is irrelevant. The judge, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, has not made a ruling on the issue yet.
Neither Corum nor Thomas will be sentenced until this trial is complete. Corum is not expected to testify, but Thomas will on Wednesday. The trial is slated to last two days.
That Thomas is now being portrayed by prosecutors as a victim is a role reversal. Before, prosecutors lambasted him for being a criminal mastermind and sociopath who used his charisma and good looks to manipulate others. He successfully avoided authorities while he was on the lam, and he made the U.S. Marshals Most Wanted Fugitive list before finally being arrested in Minneapolis in February 2012. He pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and money laundering charges in Anchorage in May of this year.
Baker’s attorney told the jury that Thomas’ words are what started the case against her client, and by the end of the trial, “you’re not going to be comfortable relying on Milan Thomas’ words for anything.”
Schmidt, on the other hand, played the video of the July 3 attack for the jury, as a corrections officer, Martin Carabajal, narrated it. Schmidt said Baker “unleashed” on Thomas and punched Thomas multiple times in the head. Thomas sustained minor injuries from the attack.
“This was not an ordinary jail fight,” Schmidt said. “This was a planned attack.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.