Clogged courts have no time for trials All sides are caught in a process that churns out guilty pleas and leniency.

May 15, 1991|By Raymond L. Sanchez | Raymond L. Sanchez,Evening Sun Staff

Accused of raping a 9-year-old girl, Willie J. McCoy wa looking at hard time behind bars.

In addition to inflicting psychological wounds, McCoy, 41, had given the child gonorrhea.

But prison wouldn't be his destination. In the assembly line that is Baltimore's arraignment court, McCoy's case was handled in minutes.

Through an assistant public defender he met for the first time the day of his arraignment, McCoy plea-bargained his way to a 30-year suspended sentence and five years' probation.

One day after walking out of court a free man, McCoy violated his probation and disappeared.

McCoy's plea bargain provides a glimpse into the fast-forward pace of justice these days in the part of Baltimore Circuit Court that handles felony arraignments.

It is here, in a courtroom presided over by Judge Kenneth Lavon Johnson, that every person accused of a serious crime in the city comes to enter a plea. Suspected murderers and rapists, robbers and burglars, crack dealers and swindlers. Sometimes 60 defendants a day.

Critics say this crucial stage in the court system has become a machine churning out guilty pleas -- with the judge, prosecutors and public defenders all under pressure to keep the machine humming.

Several other of the 25 Circuit Court judges also approve plea bargains in criminal cases. But Johnson, because he oversees felony arraignments, has the opportunity to approve many more deals than do any of his colleagues.

Moreover, Johnson believes in using long, suspended sentences, coupled with probation, as an inducement so defendants will plead guilty. Most of the deals involve accused ,, drug dealers.

The defendants are warned, by Johnson and their lawyers, that if they violate probation, the judge will give them every day of their sentences.

The Evening Sun has found that:

* Plea bargaining -- the practice of exchanging leniency for guilty pleas -- has become a way of life in a judicial system choked with drug cases. Throughout Baltimore Circuit Court, guilty pleas decide more than 90 percent of the criminal cases that end in conviction or acquittal, court statistics show.

* Prosecutors spend little time trying cases; instead they trade reduced sentences for guilty pleas because there is not enough time, courtrooms or prison space to vigorously prosecute every accused criminal.

* Public defenders, pressured by a dwindling budget and caseloads that make adequate represention virtually impossible, see no alternative to wholesale plea-bargaining.

* Jury trials are rare events in the city, and across the nation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington reports that nine in 10 felony convictions are the result of guilty pleas, and the ratio holds true for Baltimore.

For every 100 criminal cases that enter Baltimore Circuit Court, just four go before a jury, according to court statistics covering 12,866 cases for the 15 months ending March 31.

The big statistical picture, however, offers little solace to the family of the 9-year-old girl McCoy raped in March 1990.


"Plea bargains are a cop-out," her grandmother says. "When a person is charged with a crime as bad as rape, especially the rape of a child, they should go to jail."

"This judge doesn't have any business on the bench," an aunt of the victim says angrily of Johnson. "Children in this country are being exploited and abused and nobody seems to care."

However, the state's case against McCoy was flawed: A delay in reporting the attack ruled out the gathering of physical evidence such as hair and sperm; and the victim was hesitant about confronting her attacker in court.

At the time of the crime, McCoy, an unemployed heroin abuser with a criminal record that includes drug, assault and robbery charges, was living with the girl's mother, who is also a drug addict.

While the mother gave birth to McCoy's son in a local hospital, the defendant baby-sat with the girl and her younger brother. McCoy admitted in court that one night he climbed into the girl's bed and raped her.

The family learned of the rape about a week after it happened, when a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital found that the girl had gonorrhea. The child then told of the assault.

"She said McCoy did it," says the grandmother. "She didn't want her mother to know it was actually him. She said he threatened to kill her little brother if she told."


Over cups of coffee in a conference room, the judge discussed the case for several minutes with prosecutor Page Croyder and David Eaton, an assistant public defender, on the morning of McCoy's arraignment.

Johnson then agreed to accept a plea bargain: a 30-year suspended sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree rape and child abuse. Second-degree rape carries a maximum of 30 years; child abuse 15 years.

The offer was made for the first time shortly after McCoy had been led into Johnson's courtroom with a group of shackled defendants, most of whom were making appearances on drug-trafficking charges.

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