In Baltimore, only 4 in 10 killers ever go to prison


June 23, 1991|By David Simon and M. Dion Thompson

For murderers and those who pursue them, crime and punishment in Baltimore is a crapshoot -- a hit-or-miss proposition in which nearly a third of the people who kill in this city will never be caught and only four in 10 of the killers will ever see the inside of a jail cell.

A case-by-case analysis by The Sun of 1988's murders -- the latest year for which prosecutions are largely complete -- shows that only a quarter of those who committed them received sentences of more than 10 or 15 years, which generally translates to no more than three to seven years before parole.

And, there is this: A murderer in Baltimore stands less than a one in 10 chance of being sentenced to life in prison.

"It doesn't surprise me because I've been living as a judge or prosecutor since 1972," Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas said. But, he said, he once believed "that murders are easy to solve and the police waited until they had solid evidence before they attempted to take somebody to trial. Now that I know how hard [murders] are to solve and that the police don't wait, I'm much less surprised."

The statistics for the arrest and conviction rates from The Sun's analysis of Baltimore's 1988 homicides differ from those compiled by police and prosecutors. In attempting to more accurately measure a murderer's chances of being caught, convicted and sent to prison, The Sun estimated the number of people involved in homicides -- solved as well as unsolved. (See box on page 8A.)

Many factors contribute to what is happening in the city's criminal justice system.

* The ever-increasing homicide rate -- up 35 percent in the last four years -- is putting pressure on every point in the criminal justice system.

"Let's hope the system isn't going to break," says Timothy J. Doory, who heads the violent crimes unit of the state's attorney's office. "How much can we handle? I don't know."

* The nature of violent crime continues to change. Forty percent of the 1988 murders were the direct result of the city's $1-million-a-day drug trade. Another 15 percent occurred in stranger-to-stranger crimes such as robbery, burglary and rape. Those slayings, which account for an ever-greater share of the total, are typically harder to solve and prosecute than the domestic murders and bar arguments that once made up a larger share of the city's violence.

* The Police Department's investigative sections and the state's attorney's trial division have been hampered by inexperience and a lack of resources in recent years. Members of Baltimore's defense bar routinely recount courtroom victories they believe should have been losses. In 1988, defense attorneys won nearly half the murder cases brought to trial.

* Prosecutors and detectives, in turn, blame public perceptions and declining civic responsibility for jury acquittals and failed prosecutions. They say city juries are simply less willing to convict defendants than juries in the surrounding counties.

Some say this reluctance to convict stems in part from a lingering distrust of the police and the criminal justice system in inner-city Baltimore's poor neighborhoods, where the vast majority of slayings occur.

Still more blame television for oversimplifying the system and thus creating unrealistic expectations.

"We all feel more comfortable when things are neatly wrapped," says Stuart O. Simms, Baltimore state's attorney. "The trail leads up to the door, and the door is still open and the person is standing there with the mud on their shoes, but life is not like that."

Some prosecutions, of course, lack conclusive evidence and the resulting dismissals or acquittals can be regarded as reasonable outcomes. And yet an equally common scenario is that of a strong case, lost in a jury decision that defies explanation.

In one instance, a man was acquitted of shooting a bartender, even though two of his alleged co-conspirators testified against him and police found his fingerprint at the murder scene. Another man was acquitted of robbing and killing a cabdriver despite the testimony of his alleged co-defendant, a corroborating witness and a Baltimore City Jail guard to whom he had confessed.

No outcome is guaranteed. People arrested for the same crime are not necessarily guilty or not to the same degree. Take the murder of Kurt Tackett, for which four people were arrested: One pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison; two pleaded guilty to lesser charges and were sentenced to three and five years; the fourth was acquitted.

James Baskerville shot his girlfriend, pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence; Mildred Hessie shot her boyfriend, pleaded guilty and got a 10-year suspended sentence. Andre Hawkins was given a life sentence for killing a cabdriver; his partner, Anthony Carter, was given a suspended sentence.

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