Homeless man 'lost' inside city jail over a year

August 13, 1991|By Brian Sullam

For more than a year, Martin R. Henn has languished in the Baltimore city jail in a bureaucratic never-never land -- lost in the criminal justice system and unable to exercise his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

"This is a nightmare," said Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller, who yesterday presided over the arraignment of Mr. Henn, a 54-year-old homeless man and alcoholic who was arrested July 16, 1990, for arson and who has been in jail ever since -- most of the time without even having been charged at a preliminary hearing.

"He was lost in the system," Judge Heller said after telling Mr. Henn she would try to arrange his release to a halfway house tomorrow morning.

Officials in both the state's attorney's office, the public defender's office and the city jail said yesterday that they did not know how Mr. Henn's case had fallen through the cracks and he had been kept in jail without trial or charges for so long.

"I have been around this system for a number of years and I have never seen anything like this," said Antonio Gioia, a public defender. He said it was the responsibility of the government to keep track of defendants who are locked up, where they are and when their cases are to come to trial.

Mr. Henn, an admitted alcoholic, said he tried to tell social workers in the jail about his plight but they told him that they could do nothing for him until he got a trial date.

"Somebody goofed, and they were holding me illegally," Mr. Henn told Judge Heller.

Despite his ordeal, Mr. Henn did not voice any outrage in two appearances before Judge Heller yesterday. Instead he profusely thanked Judge Heller for "trying to do something for a homeless man" and helping him when nobody else would.

"I will get myself off the street and out of Baltimore City," he said after the judge told him she would try to arrange his release.

Mr. Henn was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a car in Brooklyn June 15, 1990. The circumstances of the fire are not clear, but three witnesses say they saw him around the car right before it burst into flames, according to court files. He was arrested for arson July 16, 1990, and sent to the jail, then under control of the city but since July 1 of this year a part of the state prison system and renamed the Baltimore City Detention Center.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Henn, who is a trained auto mechanic, was living on the streets of Brooklyn and north Anne Arundel County. He made a living by doing odd jobs like painting houses and building fences.

A preliminary hearing -- where a judge determines whether there is probable cause to charge someone with a crime -- was scheduled for Aug. 14, 1990. Even though Mr. Henn was in the jail he was not brought to the hearing; when he failed to appear in court, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

But nobody checked the newly issued warrant against the inmate list at the jail. As a result, one chance to catch the mistake fairly early on was missed.

And because there had been no preliminary hearing, Mr. Henn had not in legal terms been charged with a crime. Therefore, he did not have an attorney appointed for him who could have insisted on his right to a speedy trial.

Moreover, the state's attorney had not filed a criminal information against him or had a grand jury indict him. Prosecutors say this was because they were waiting for the bench warrant to be served and Mr. Henn brought to court. They said they did not know he was already in jail.

Mr. Henn's stay in cell S-39 continued with no end in sight.

Mr. Henn, a slight man with blue eyes, said he had survived for years on the streets and he figured he could survive in jail.

As the months dragged on, Mr. Henn's beard grew bushy and thick. His hair, which had been close cropped when he entered jail, grew to his shoulders. He celebrated his 54th birthday in jail July 8, and said he was afraid he was going to celebrate his next birthday in jail as well.

Unbeknown to him or anyone else in the system, Alan Woods, a statistician and computer expert in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, noticed on a computer run that Mr. Henn had spent more than a year in jail and had no charges pending against him, according to Gary Honick, the prosecutor who is now handling the case.

Mr. Woods sent Mr. Henn's file to the economic crimes division of the State's Attorney's Office, which is responsible for prosecuting arson cases. Mr. Honick presented the case to a grand jury July 22. The grand jury indicted him on two counts of arson.

For Mr. Henn, the wheels of justice began moving again.

Friday, he was brought before Judge Heller, who asked him the normal questions -- was he represented by counsel, did he understand the charges he was facing, how long had he been in jail.

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