Tough questions, tough problem

Dan Rodricks

April 03, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

These are the questions the brother of a murder victim asked after he learned the state would not prosecute the chief suspect in the crime:

"Do they have enough resources to really investigate these crimes? Are the detectives burned out? Are they desensitized to death? Do they care? I feel for them. I know they got a tough job -- underpaid, overworked, understaffed -- but are they doing a top-notch job? Or are they just going through the motions? It bothers me that this happened at 10 o'clock at night on Charles Street, which is one of the busiest streets in Baltimore. Somebody had to do it. Who?"

This was Charles Cary putting his frustration into words. Though it has all been explained to him -- citing insufficient evidence, the state chose not to prosecute the 16-year-old charged last August with James Cary's death in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore -- the surviving brother is left with all the questions that normally haunt relatives of victims of unsolved murders. But more, in this time of budget crisis and system overload and public cynicism, Charles Cary wonders about the ability of cops and prosecutors to effectively do their jobs.

He's not alone. A few weeks ago, Bishop Robinson, public safety and correctional services secretary, said violent crime has so burdened Maryland's law enforcement system that it is close to gridlock. Last year, Baltimore recorded its second consecutive year of new heights in homicide, with more than 300 murders. Many of them resulted from the fierce drug trade.

"But my brother," Charles Cary said, "was a good kid. He was just walking down the street."

His brother was a 35-year-old postal employee. Shortly after 10 p.m. last Aug. 28, James Cary was walking about three blocks from his home on West Monument Street. He was near Charles and Centre streets when two teen-agers accosted him and tried to rob him. One of them shot him. Cary staggered across Centre and into a small restaurant with a lunch counter, crying out that he had been shot. He collapsed by the counter. He died about 40 minutes later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The autopsy showed he had been shot once in the stomach, once in the chest. The bullets went through his body; they were never recovered.

After the shooting, the cops picked up a 16-year-old kid on the street near City Hall and drove him to police headquarters. He was identified there as the gunman by a woman who had told police she witnessed the Cary shooting from across Centre Street. The boy was not placed in a lineup; he was the only suspect shown to the witness. Police charged him with killing James Cary.

It was maybe mid-November before Lawrence Doan, an experienced prosecutor in the trial division of the State's Attorney's Office, got the case file to prepare for trial. He did not have much -- no gun, and some troubling discrepancies in descriptions provided by witnesses, including the woman who had identified the suspect. There were three other people who either heard or saw "some piece of the action" on Charles Street that night.

Doan was uneasy. His witnesses had described a suspect as wearing dark clothing and black tennis shoes. When cops stopped him, however, the 16-year-old was wearing light-colored clothing, white socks and white tennis shoes. Witnesses also had described the suspect as tall -- about 6 feet -- and thin. The suspect was 5-feet-6 and stocky.

"Someone is dead and, of course, we want to pursue the person responsible," Doan said. "But we have to have enough evidence to convict."

There are times when prosecutors know they have the right man jTC but not quite enough evidence to prove it; they might take a chance on going to trial, anyway. Other times, their belief that they have the right man is not as firm. So, rather than go to trial and lose, they drop the charges and hold out the faint hope that new evidence will develop, or that a new suspect will emerge.

A few weeks ago, before he made a final decision on the case, Lawrence Doan took the highly unusual step of personally interrogating the suspect, with his defense attorney present. A little while later, he was calling the Cary family to break the news -- there would be no trial. Not now. The 16-year-old was released, the charges dropped.

The Cary family, still grieving seven months later, had hoped a conviction would further resolve things, so you can understand how frustrated they were.

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