The decision by the Anne Arundel County prosecutor to drop murder charges against the suspects in the JoAnne S. Valentine murder set off a flurry of finger-pointing last week. State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee lambasted the public defender's office for trying to embarrass him by not revealing sooner that one of the defendants was in jail when the nightclub owner from Arnold was murdered. Public Defender Alan R. Friedman blamed the police and state's attorney for shoddy detective work.
There's more than enough blame to go around. The police and prosecutors should have checked the whereabouts of their prime suspect; the public defender's office should have let prosecutors know sooner that their client had an air-tight alibi.
But the problem here is not just slipshod investigative work or petty vindictiveness. The problem is the criminal justice system's dependency on informants desperate to make a deal.
This time, police and prosecutors depended upon Clarence D. Pittman, a kidnapping, carjacking and robbery suspect who agreed to testify in exchange for a reduced sentence in his own case. Pittman told police he had heard suspects Gilbert E. Griffin and Edward W. McLeod discussing the Valentine murder within hours after it occurred.
The prosecutors were desperate to believe Pittman and solve the highly publicized case. They had caught Mr. McLeod with the murder weapon months before, but lacked the evidence to make a murder charge stick. Hoping to get more, police released Pittman from jail so he could tape record the statements of others who had heard the suspects talk of the murder. Instead, Pittman disappeared for two months and had to be recaptured. Yet despite his untrustworthiness, prosecutors relied on Pittman's testimony to obtain an indictment against Mr. McLeod and Griffin in December, and continued to believe him even though he apparently could not pick McLeod's picture out of a photo lineup.
In the past, we have criticized Mr. Weathersbee for being an overly cautious investigator. This time, he was not careful enough. Informants will always be a necessary part of criminal investigations. Bargains will have to be made in exchange for testimony. But as this sorry episode shows, when prosecutors build a case based solely upon the statements of desperate people, it's likely to collapse.