Bail, releases in drug killings alarm police City prosecutors fear court's actions will deter witnesses

April 28, 1991|By David Simon

Not more than 24 hours after suspects in two separate drug slayings were arrested by Baltimore homicide detectives this month, they were returned to the street -- released on bail by District Court judges.

Within days:

* Witnesses and potential witnesses in the two cases became uncooperative, with some backing away from prior statements and others demanding police protection in a city that has little or no money to spend to ensure the safety of witnesses, police said.

* One defendant apparently managed to remove as many as four semiautomatic weapons from his and his girlfriend's town house before detectives could obtain and execute a search warrant. Packaging material was found for both .40-caliber Glock and Mac-11 weapons, detectives said.

* City homicide investigators, deluged by drug-related violence and angered at the decision to grant bail in premeditated-murder cases, were complaining to superiors and prosecutors alike, arguing for changes in pretrial procedures for homicides.

"The threat level to all witnesses is high," Detective Sgt. Gary Childs wrote in a memo to Capt. John J. MacGillavery, commander of the homicide unit.

Charged in the 1990 murder of a West Baltimore drug dealer, Gregory "Manny" Whyte was released on $100,000 bond even though he was already out on four separate bails totaling $120,000. The other charges pending against him include assault with intent to murder, assault, and drug and handgun violations.

"It's a joke," said Kevin Davis, a veteran detective who had arrested Whyte in the 1990 slaying of a West Baltimore drug dealer. "He's on probation for one gun charge, and he's out on bail in four other cases for guns and drugs. He's charged with a murder, and he gets bail for that, too. It's a revolving door."

Five days later, 23-year-old Ronnie Alexander Hunt was released on $2,500 bond -- a remarkably low amount in any violent crime -- after he and a cousin were charged in the slaying of a rival drug dealer during a gunfight in which more than 70 rounds were fired from semiautomatic weapons. The cousin's bail was $35,000.

In the Hunt case, the arresting detective learned that his suspects were free when his telephone pager began to go off with repeated calls from potential witnesses and informants, who were suddenly in fear and demanding protection.

"They were calling me terrified, saying 'He's out. He's on the corner. What the hell are you guys doing?' " says Detective Harry Edgerton, a 10-year veteran of the homicide unit. "And there wasn't much I could tell them."

For detectives and prosecutors accustomed to seeing defendants in drug-related slayings denied bail, the recent cases seem part of an ominous trend. The danger, they argue, is real: Another drug homicide defendant granted bond by a District judge last year is now the suspect in another murder and two attempted murders, prosecutors acknowledge.

In the recent cases, the decisions by District Court judges to grant bail resulted from a variety of factors -- some of which suggest that pretrial release procedures in city courts are strained beyond their limits:

* In the Whyte case, no prosecutor was present to counter a defense attorney's arguments at the bail hearing. Staffing limitations in the state's attorney's office leave many such hearings unattended.

In the wake of the recent releases, detectives are urging prosecutors to ensure state representation, possibly by holding bail hearings for all homicides in one courtroom. Deputy State's Attorney Alexander Palenscar said centralized booking for city courts is being studied by Joseph A. Ciotola, chief judge of the Baltimore district bench.

In the case involving Hunt and his cousin, Harry Johnson III, the prosecutor was interrupted by the judge when he attempted to argue that the defendants, by virtue of the offense charged and their criminal history, were dangers to the community.

"The judge started to rule before I even spoke," said Monroe Brown, an assistant state's attorney at the Wabash Avenue District Court. "He made it clear he wasn't interested in anything I had to say."

In an interview, Judge Alan B. Lipson acknowledged that he cut Mr. Brown off but said he did so when it became clear to him that the prosecutor was not adding anything to information contained in the statement of charges.

"That day, I was handling 64 bail hearings," said the judge. "There isn't time to dawdle."

* In both cases, the judges expressed concerns about the quality of the evidence in the statement of charges prepared by detectives and signed by court commissioners. Under state law, the evidence against a defendant is one of several factors to be considered by judges at bail hearings, the first step in the prosecutorial process.

However, detectives and prosecutors say they routinely provide a minimum of evidence in initial charging documents, choosing to reveal the bulk of their case after indictment in order to protect witnesses and preserve trial strategy.

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