ROANOKE — The legal status of a man who previously admitted to a role in a gang-related death years ago is in question now that he has partially recanted his plea.
Matthew Ceasar Ferguson stood in front of Chief Judge Michael Urbanski on Friday, preparing to plead guilty to racketeering charges.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Urbanski asked Ferguson.
They’d been through almost the exact same situation in federal court in November 2018, in fact. In that earlier guilty plea, Ferguson admitted to being involved in multiple shootings and drug deals associated with the Rollin’ 60s Crips street gang in Danville.
In that earlier plea agreement, Ferguson admitted to being one of the gunmen in the Aug. 20, 2016, fatal shooting of Christopher Lamont Motley at the Southwyk Hills Apartment complex in Danville. On Friday in Roanoke, Ferguson was again pleading guilty to Urbanski, but with one key difference: he wasn’t admitting to pulling a trigger on the night of Motley’s death.
In a new plea agreement, Ferguson was admitting to being a getaway driver on the night of the shooting, but not to being one of the shooters. Urbanski, who is currently presiding over a trial for other alleged members of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, was perturbed by Ferguson’s change in testimony.
“Which one’s the truth, Mr. Ferguson?” he asked.
“This one,” Ferguson answered quietly.
A visibly frustrated Urbanski refused to accept Ferguson’s guilty plea, saying he wasn’t sure which of the sworn statements to believe. That’s not to say the judge won’t eventually accept it, though, as he will continue to consider it, he said. Urbanski said in court he might decide on Ferguson’s plea after either the current trial or a concurrent gang-related trial scheduled for January. Ferguson still is available to appear as a witness in the trials.
The hearing was a highly anticipated one among attorneys in the current gang-related trial, which began Monday in Roanoke. Ferguson, 23, is on the prosecution’s list of possible witnesses, and could serve as a key witness as the government attempts to prove that some of the eight defendants on trial were involved in Motley’s death.
Urbanski asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Carlton — who is prosecuting both Ferguson’s case and the larger case — whether she was for sure going to call Ferguson as a witness.
“We’re still evaluating that,” Carlton responded.
Urbanski repeatedly pushed Ferguson to explain why he changed his statement, and defense attorney Mary Maguire gave a brief history of Ferguson’s statements to law enforcement officers. Maguire said Ferguson first told Danville police he was not a shooter the night of Motley’s death.
Then, after 30 minutes of “thorough” interrogation from Danville police, as Maguire put it, Ferguson changed his story. According to an Aug. 30, 2019, letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to defense attorneys in the gang case, Ferguson told prosecutors he admitted to pulling the trigger because he believed it was what law enforcement officials wanted to hear.
When he pleaded guilty in November 2018, his then-attorney Allegra Black advised him to continue to say he was one of the shooters, as Ferguson explained in court Friday.
The new plea agreement, which Carlton read aloud in court Friday, alleged that Ferguson was one of the first members of the Rollin’ 60s Crips, which formed in 2015. It stated that bad blood formed between the Rollin’ 60s and a gang known as the Billy Bloods, and that members of the Rollin’ 60s planned to lure the other gang’s leader into a trap and kill him.
According to the plea agreement, Ferguson was present while he and others planned the shooting, but he was out on an errand during the ambush. When Ferguson drove back to the scene, according to the agreement, members of the Rollin’ 60s jumped into his car and he drove them away from the area. He later found out, he admitted, that the shooting had happened while he was gone, and that instead of the Billys leader, Motley had been in the ambushed vehicle and had been killed.
There were looks of surprise around the courtroom as Urbanski announced he did not accept Ferguson’s plea. The judge said he still wasn’t convinced which of Ferguson’s sworn statements was actually true.
“I believe all of this will be fleshed out at trial in this case if you’re called as a witness,” Urbanski said.