Council members right to meet with judge

COMMENTARY, COLUMN

June 14, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

It appears that a group of Baltimore City Council members misled the public last week by not acknowledging a meeting with the administrative judge of the city Circuit Court to discuss the Jacqueline F. McLean case. And that's too bad, because I think the issues the group tried to raise behind closed doors deserve an airing.

Five council members -- Vera P. Hall, Carl Stokes, Melvin L. Stukes, Sheila Dixon and Iris Reeves -- met with Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan Friday to express concerns that Mrs. McLean's trial had turned into a circus and that the criminal justice system was treating the anguished city comptroller with undue harshness.

This followed a rancorous day in court before Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe Wednesday, at the conclusion of which Mrs. McLean had what her lawyers called a "panic attack."

She remains under a suicide watch at Sheppard Pratt Hospital today. Her involuntary commitment has forced postponement of her trial.

Mrs. McLean, once the third most powerful elected official in the city, has been charged with the theft of more than $25,000 in public funds and with other improprieties. She repeatedly has threatened to kill herself and for the past five months has been under psychiatric care for depression.

Mrs. Hall and some of the other council members present denied, at first, that they had had a formal meeting with Judge Kaplan. When two Circuit Court judges confirmed the meeting, the council members then declined comment.

Yesterday, Mrs. Hall explained that her initial statements to the press were made under the advice of legal counsel. "I wasn't intentionally misleading anybody," she told me. "But I had legal advice to the effect that this was growing into a sticky situation and that it would be better if I declined comment."

Some members of the bench, including Judge Bothe, believe the meeting was improper. And Mayor Kurt Schmoke was quoted last week as saying that the meeting gives the appearance of political interference in a judicial proceeding.

But I disagree.

I believe the council members were absolutely right to meet with Judge Kaplan and absolutely right to express the concern of their constituents that the embattled city comptroller was being treated with too little compassion.

In fact, the mayor should have found a way to raise the issue. Is he totally oblivious to the concerns in the community?

Said Mrs. Hall: "We had been getting a lot of calls, especially from black women, that Mrs. McLean was being subjected to a double standard, that there was a general lack of sympathy and empathy on the part of the court for her as an individual. People were planning a demonstration around the court. I said, 'Don't do that. Let me talk to them first.' "

Added Ms. Dixon: "We're not saying she should be let off . . . . We don't have that right. We're saying, treat her fairly, don't drive her into the grave."

Such concerns deserve public expression, and who is better suited to do so than an elected official?

I have covered criminal justice issues for the better part of my 20-year professional career and I believe blacks and whites often have diametrically opposed perspectives on the workings of the system -- perspectives that have nothing to do with actual bigotry or racism.

Many whites believe that law enforcement officials have become so concerned about racism that they lean over backward to treat blacks fairly -- so much so that blacks sometimes get breaks a white defendant does not get.

Many blacks, on the other hand, believe the system treats black defendants without compassion or regard to individual circumstances.

Those conflicting views of the system clash when it is called upon to judge a high-profile black defendant such as Jackie McLean.

Then, the officers of the court (who almost always are white) seem intent on demonstrating to society that black defendants will not be given special consideration because of their color.

Meanwhile, blacks see this zeal as confirmation of their worst fears.

I understand those fears. I am glad the council members were moved to address them. Their only mistake lay in trying to cover it up.

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