Is justice being done? Evidence is insufficient

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 05, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Beautiful: In the very first case of the brand new year in the city's Central District Court, some guy named King gets a pass.

This King was charged with intent to distribute narcotics. But we now have an assistant state's attorney, Emmett Davitt, standing here on the second day of January explaining that the city will have to bid farewell to King until another time. Insufficient evidence, says Davitt.

This is known as a euphemism. It is the legal system shrugging its shoulders as someone walks away while thumbing his nose. The truth is this: A city cop stopped King, and patted him down, and noticed a bulge. He removed the bulge from King's pocket and found quite a bit of cocaine.

Slight problem: The cop had no legal right to search King's pocket. Therefore, he had no right to the evidence that brought the original charges against King. Therefore, we have the term "insufficient evidence" introduced into the language.

In Central District Court, on this first working day of the new year, it gets only marginally better. The next case involves some woman with a shiner under her eye. She's wearing a fur coat dyed inexplicably blue. The charge is disorderly conduct.

Her case is stetted, or put on a shelf. If the lady in the blue fur coat will stay out of trouble for a year, the system will agree not to prosecute her. The lady nods her head. A pattern begins to form.

In the first 50 minutes of the new year, Judge David Young will hear a total of 18 criminal cases, all of which will be stetted or postponed or in some way cast aside for a variety of reasons: The defendant didn't bother to get an attorney; the state doesn't have sufficient evidence to make a case; the victim didn't show up or the witnesses don't want to be bothered; or maybe the case doesn't warrant the state squandering its time and resources.

The last is important. The district courts, where street crime comes to pay its dues, handle too many cases a year to do them all classic justice. In 1990, there were 78,223 District Court criminal cases in Baltimore. In the first nine months of 1991, there were 59,972 more.

You handle that many cases, you start to choke on your own backlog. It becomes an act of salvation simply to set some of them aside -- stet them, nol pros them, dismiss them altogether. In 1990, this happened more than 20,000 times in the district courts. In the first nine months of 1991, more than 16,000 times.

The problem's not just the overload of District Court cases. Even if you find people guilty, where do you put them? The state prison population now edges toward 19,000, with every institution now bulging with human bodies despite the addition last year of five new prison buildings.

So we return now to Central District Court on the first day of the new year, where Judge David Young will go through 39 cases in the first two hours and 25 minutes of the morning. This includes time devoted to legal matters, plus extralegal asides.

While hearing the case of a sleepy-eyed defendant named Pastora, the judge suddenly hollers to the back of the packed courtroom, "Wake up and sit up, sir. All the way in the back, under the clock, sit up."

He will do this three more times this morning. Each time, a low-level wave of giggling is heard in the room. In front of the judge, this Pastora person has two slight problems: He doesn't understand English, and he's been charged with fourth-degree sexual assault.

"He grabbed someone's breast," an assistant public defender named Christie Cohen explains, after an interpreter has put the charges into Spanish.

Anyway, Pastora's case is stetted. The victim has not appeared and, anyway, where do you put a guy like this when the jails are already bursting their seams?

For that matter, what do you do with a sad sack like this defendant Anderson? He breaks into the cafeteria at the University of Maryland Medical Center one night, where security guards catch him eating cake and drinking milk. He immediately collapses in tears and admits he grabbed a cafeteria worker's purse the week before. He gets a year behind bars.

By late morning now, everybody's patience is running a little short, when a defendant named McPhearson arrives, clad in a blue sweat suit and leg irons. He's charged with stealing a car. McPhearson has what is known in the trade as an attitude.

First he fights with Cohen, his public defender. Then, as if this is not brilliant enough, he fights with Judge Young.

"Please don't cuss in my courtroom," the judge tells him, after an outburst not fit for the readers of this newspaper.

"I'm gonna speak my mind," says McPhearson.

"Don't cuss," declares Young.

McPhearson mutters something under his breath: Not a smart move.

"Say it again," Young challenges him. "Say it again. Say it again."

"Somebody can't say what they feel," McPhearson says, and then he utters another nasty word, followed by, "You lost your mind."

"You called me a [bleep]," says Young.

"I did not," says McPhearson.

"You said you were going to speak your mind," says Young, "and you called me a [bleep]."

"I did not call you a [bleep]," says McPhearson.

"I'm not gonna take any crap off you," says the judge. He gives McPhearson six months for bleeping, and then he pushes his car theft case to another day.

And that is what we have to report on the first working day of the new year from Central District Court, where things have to get better but probably won't.

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