If it's too good to be true . . .

Dan Rodricks

February 15, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Today's criminal justice story begins with a storm door.

We go back about eight months, to a June afternoon in Butcher's Hill in East Baltimore, where we find a young man walking down a street with an aluminum storm door. He meets another young man named Joe Scalia. He introduces Joe to the storm door. Joe owns a rowhouse in the neighborhood. He could use a storm door.

The guy with the storm door -- I shall call him Stormy for the purpose of this column -- tells Joe that he is in the process of learning a new skill. He's been installing storm doors in the neighborhood, but has mismeasured the one in his hand. He's anxious to sell it.

By luck, the storm door fits the frame in Joe Scalia's front entrance. So Joe buys it. He pays $50.

Stormy goes about installing it. However, when Stormy said he was in the process of learning a new skill, he wasn't kidding; the installation of the storm door is a downright struggle for him. He grunts and grinds until another man comes by and shows him how to do it. "The other man ends up doing most of the work," Joe Scalia recalled.

Just a few days later, Joe is sick with the flu. He's in bed on his third floor. It's midafternoon, June 11, 1990. It happens to be Joe's 27th birthday.

The doorbell rings.

Joe is annoyed. But he gets out of bed and goes to the window. He looks down. He sees Stormy standing at the front door.

"I didn't want to be bothered," Joe said.

So he goes back to bed.

About 10 minutes later, Joe hears the pitter-patter of little feet in his house. He slides out of bed and makes his way to the center hallway, by the staircase. He looks down. He sees a young man in dreadlocks standing on the second-floor landing. He sees another young man at the bottom of the stairs. Joe is sure the second young man is Stormy. Stormorino! The Storm Man! And it appears that Stormy is in the process of learning yet another new trade!

"I yell, 'Hey!' and right away they make a beeline for the back door," Joe said.

He runs down the stairs and chases the two men out of the house.

"They had pried open the kitchen door, which had been locked with a deadbolt," Joe said. "They did some serious damage to that door."

The two men scamper out of the house, through a garage door, into Joe's rear yard and from there to an alley. Apparently, the men hadn't taken anything from Joe's house.

"A piece of stereo equipment had been moved to the edge of a shelf, but they had to leave it there," Joe said. "I called the police. The first cop got there in about 10 minutes."

And within three hours, the police are arresting the Storm Man.

"He was charged with daytime housebreaking and released on personal recognizance," said Joe Scalia, a nighttime law student at the University of Baltimore who now found himself drawn into a real-life crime story. "What happened to this case over the next several months I found incomprehensible."

What happened might not be all that unusual, actually. But it does serve as an example of the frequently slow grind in the Maryland courts, even the relatively expeditious district courts, and the frustration it spawns.

"The first date for appearance was July, about a month after the incident," Joe said. "The prosecutor had been talking about going for a seven-year sentence. The charge was a felony."

Stormy, represented by the public defender's office, asks for a postponement.

"The case was moved till September," Joe said. "September comes and I go to court on North Avenue, and guess what?"

Stormy doesn't post.

A judge issues a warrant for his arrest.

Several weeks go by. Joe gets another notice for a court appearance.

Now it's Friday, Feb. 8, 1991. Joe goes to court. And learns why Stormy didn't show for his September trial: "He got arrested on some other charge. He didn't come to court because he was in City Jail."

There's something else Joe learns in court: The original charge, stemming from the break-in at his house, has been reduced to breaking and entering.

"And because they dropped it to a B&E, he asked for another postponement," Joe said. "And it was granted. The next court date is April 9."

It's been a frustrating, yet edifying, experience for Joe Scalia, young law student. The lesson? If somebody sells you a storm door for 50 bucks, installed, there's gotta be a catch. Caveat emptor, baby!

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