Baltimore Circuit Judge Edward J. Angeletti has been removed as head of the city's felony arraignment court because his reluctance to negotiate plea bargains has created "wasteful" and unnecessary work for the court, according to administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who made the decision.
Judge Angeletti, who was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment, will be replaced Monday as head of felony arraignments by Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson. Baltimore Circuit Court handles about 5,000 felony cases a year. Plea-bargain deals made in felony arraignment court help lighten the caseload.
"Is it that the program is no longer valid or is it the personalities involved" that is causing the low number of plea bargains? Judge Kaplan asked. "My gut feeling is that it is still a valid program. And if we find that it is, then we'll know that we can't keep [judges] in felony arraignment for long periods of time; they get burned out.
"I'm going to try and switch [the job] amongst several judges to see whether it's the person or the program," he said.
In September, the number of plea bargains agreed upon before Judge Angeletti in felony arraignment court was 19 out of nearly 400 cases, or 4.8 percent, the lowest in nearly 10 years.
However, Judge Kaplan said yesterday the figure does not reflect the actual number of plea bargains ultimately reached in those cases because defense attorneys are simply waiting to negotiate a deal once the case comes to trial.
"They're deliberately not doing it at the arraignment and are waiting to do it at trial," said Judge Kaplan, who added that he had been discussing the move with Judge Angeletti for at least six months. "That's wasteful. It's much better to dispose of them at the beginning. I'd like to see plea bargains get back over 20 percent."
Before Judge Angeletti began presiding over felony arraignment court in 1988, retired Judge Edgar P. Silver held the position and regularly sat down with defense attorneys and prosecutors in his chambers to work out a deal.
Under Judge Angeletti, everything takes place in open court.
"Maybe its because he has so many other responsibilities, but he hasn't gotten as involved in the plea-bargaining process as other judges," said Michael E. Kaminkow, a defense attorney who has complained to the bar association that felony arraignment court was not working as it was intended. "The operation of that court is so important to the entire process. The more cases you get rid of at an early stage, the more beneficial it is. But it requires effort from everybody involved. The court ought to be abolished if we're not going to do better."