Judge and jury

Gregory P. Kane

April 15, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

WHAT did I have to gain?" Judge Kenneth L. Johnson aske me. He was seated behind his massive desk in his chambers at the Baltimore Circuit Court. "I don't live down on Whitelock."

His implication was clear. Judge Johnson is the one who charged a

so-called "rogue grand jury" to look into why wholesale drug dealers aren't being pursued by the criminal justice system.

He didn't have to do that. He could have remained in his safe, comfortable home in Roland Park -- out of the way of the gunfire and drug dealers that infest the Whitelock Streets of the city -- and gone quietly about his business until he retires.

The morning after the grand jury report became public, Judge Johnson and I were sitting in his office discussing the fallout. He was perplexed at an editorial in The Sun criticizing him, as well as shocked that Mayor Schmoke was dropping not very subtle hints that it was Judge Johnson and the grand jury -- not wholesale drug dealers -- who needed to be investigated.

But Judge Johnson is adamant in his belief that all participants in the drug trade should be prosecuted. In his formal charge to the grand jury, Judge Johnson specifically included "lawyers who collect and file false affidavits on behalf of their clients, lawyers who pay alibi witnesses to testify falsely at criminal trails, businessmen and bankers who 'launder' drug money and 'front' for drug dealers, and accountants and investment bankers who provide the expertise to keep the enormous flow of cash hidden from public scrutiny."

Our current "drug war," according to Judge Johnson, ignores those at the upper echelons and concentrates on black youths )) at the street level. It is not a "war on drugs" so much as it is a "war on the underclass."

As if to emphasize the point, Judge Johnson cited some statistics he had gathered. Of 7,352 cases that came before him between November 1990 and August 1991, 61 percent were drug cases. The average grade attended by defendants was the tenth; the average defendant was 25 years old. Ninety-two percent of the defendants were black, and 55 percent had at least one prior conviction.

"We keep locking up the same people over and over,`" said the judge, "without any significant results."

That's not the view of Baltimore City State's Attorney Stuart Simms, who insists he is an "equal opportunity" prosecutor. He and Mayor Kurt Schmoke have dismissed the grand jury report as "amateurish," which is one of the cleverer pieces of semantic legerdemain to come down the pike in a while.

The fact is, all grand juries are amateurish. There are no "professional" grand juries comprised of 23 people whose career objective is to indict criminals. The mayor and state's attorney probably mean that the grand jury had no prosecutor to guide it, which I suppose is a legitimate charge.

But we can look at it another way: The grand jury had no prosecutor to misguide it, either. The grand jury's report, in fact, was clear in its criticism of the state's attorney's office:

"When the focus was upon yet another businessman alleged to be involved in the laundering of cash for a certain drug operation, a certain assistant state's attorney interceded to put a halt to the efforts. This action by the assistant state's attorney has been corroborated by others."

The report leveled equally serious charges against the city police department:

"From the testimony of many witnesses (police officers and detectives), however, the rotation policy has only been utilized when an investigation has led in the direction of individuals who are politically, socially or professionally well-connected . . .

"Every officer or detective testified they were rotated when the -- investigation pointed to an individual with some social prominence. One of these people . . . is a well-known member of the community with cash-based businesses. He was the subject of an investigation in 1979 by a police officer, and again in 1986. There was evidence that he was laundering drug money, and the investigation met resistance by the higher echelon in the [police department], with the investigating officer ultimately transferred to another department."

The grand jury did not twist any arms or put guns to any heads to get this testimony. It was given freely by members of either the city police department, the state's attorney's office, or both. The witnesses "were extremely detailed in their testimony, demonstrated no biases, and are willing to come forward, and their credibility seemed unimpeachable," the report stated.

If the witnesses are lying, then either State's Attorney Simms and Police Commissioner Edward Woods -- or both -- clearly have problems inside their organizations. But neither has addressed that issue. Instead, they joined Mayor Schmoke in a continuing and constant harangue of the grand jury: The jury was amateurish, it didn't use traditional grand jury procedures, it was a "rogue" grand jury.

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