Things Go Wrong for Weathersbee

COMMENT

July 02, 1995|By ELISE ARMACOST

The cookie never crumbles the right way for Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee, does it?

He's an experienced and credible prosecutor, yet his whole career has been dogged by the perception that he's soft, that he lets the big fish get away more often than a prosecutor ought.

He enjoyed a brief respite from his travails after last November's election, when he held onto his job despite being a Democrat in a year when Democrats were as popular as cyanide, and despite a no-holds-barred challenge by an opponent who made him sound as if he were giving criminals keys to the detention center.

On election night, the state's attorney's relief was palpable. The election returns showed him winning comfortably, but he had had to fight like mad to achieve that result. He knew how narrowly he had escaped.

Now he had a chance to put that all behind him. No more "Set 'Em Free Weathersbee." A fresh four years. Plenty of time to craft a strong, confidence-inspiring image.

Yet here we are, seven months later, and Mr. Weathersbee's fighting the same old demons.

"State drops charges in girl's killing," the headline said last week. Three months earlier: "Charges again dropped in death of club owner."

The club owner was Joanne S. Valentine of Arnold, who was blown away in her own driveway in September 1993. Police quickly arrested Edward W. McLeod after finding the handgun used to shoot her in Mr. McLeod's trunk. But Mr. Weathersbee had no proof that Mr. McLeod actually did the shooting, so he dropped the murder charge.

This didn't enhance his image as a tough crime fighter, and his opponent milked it for all it was worth during the campaign. Nonetheless, it was right. Without evidence showing that Mr. McLeod fired the fatal shot or connecting him to the murder scene, going to trial would have been irresponsible and pointless, not to mention self-serving.

As Mr. Weathersbee recently commented to a reporter, "You never get criticized for trying a case."

But what about the two most recent debacles?

In late March, prosecutors dropped murder charges against a second suspect, Gilbert E. Griffin, when they discovered he couldn't have killed Mrs. Valentine; he was sitting in the Baltimore County Detention Center at the time.

And, last week, 19-year-old Tierre T. Wallace, suspected of murdering 16-year-old Catherine E. Webster outside a Crofton pool hall, was freed after 80 days in jail because two alibi witnesses came forward to testify he was watching videos with them the night of the killing.

What do all these incidents say about Mr. Weathersbee? That he deserves the "Set 'Em Free" label, after all?

In the Griffin case, there's no question: The state's attorney's office -- and the police -- screwed up.

Mr. Weathersbee blamed the public defender's office for not informing him sooner that Griffin had been in jail, but that's ridiculous. Mr. Weathersbee's staff is supposed to screen every case to make sure it is solid; a thorough investigation should have revealed that Griffin had been in jail.

Blame for the unraveling of the Wallace case is harder to lay at the state's attorney's feet.

First of all, prosecutors had every reason to consider Mr. Wallace a credible suspect. One witness picked him out of a photo lineup as the shooter, another told police he'd sold him a handgun identical to the one described as having been used in the crime.

Yes, he languished in jail until last week even though his attorney informed prosecutors of the alibi witnesses in late April. But Mr. Weathersbee kept him there to give police -- who still suspect Mr. Wallace in the killing -- a chance to refute the alibi and build a case against him.

No one who wants him to be tougher on crime could fault him for that.

Unfortunately for Mr. Weathersbee, these failed murder cases have obscured his efforts to address the flaws that have netted him criticism in the past.

He is not talented at communicating with the public and imparting a sense that his office is making Anne Arundel County safe, so he hired a good public relations person to speak for him. And he reportedly cracked down on his prosecutors, demanding an end to careless mistakes that can let criminals walk.

The Webster and Valentine cases do point out the need to screen cases with greater care and more quickly -- to make sure prosecution witnesses are credible and discover potentially damning evidence before a suspect sits in jail for months.

Still, they make Mr. Weathersbee look worse than he deserves.

Other prosecutors get cases where the pieces all fall into place, where the obvious suspects really are the bad guys and the state's attorney walks away looking like a hero.

Things just don't come that easily for this state's attorney.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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