Ecker rejects criticism of jail Grand jury went beyond its authority, executive claims

February 20, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, rejecting a grand jury's criticisms of the county detention center, told a judge this week that the jail's management is none of the grand jury's business.

In a letter dated Tuesday to the head of the county Circuit Court, Ecker said the grand jury overstepped its authority last month when it called for an independent oversight panel to review procedures at the Howard County Detention Center.

Ecker made clear in the letter, addressed to Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., that the county has no plans to heed the grand jury's recommendations about the administration of James N. "Buck" Rollins, jail director.

"I cannot see appointing an oversight group to oversee Mr. Rollins," Ecker wrote. "That is my job."

Ecker wrote that he had "the utmost confidence" in Rollins and that there is ample oversight for the jail.

Ecker's letter also asked that the grand jury report be officially removed from all public records and alleged that the state's attorney's office broke county law in its handling of the report.

But the deputy state's attorney who serves as the grand jury's legal adviser said the jury was acting well within its rights when it issued the report.

"We believe that they are empowered to do this," said Deputy State's Attorney Les Gross.

Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland Law School professor, agreed with Gross, saying the jury was performing its proper role as the legal body that issues criminal indictments as well as reports designed to alert public officials about potential problems.

Colbert, calling the grand juries "powerful" bodies, said that once such panels are called to investigate matters, they can look as far into something as they deem appropriate. He said that, historically, providing recommendations to public officials has been a role of grand juries.

"It sounds like [the county officials] feel the grand jury has done more than [they expected]," Colbert said. "It hasn't met with the favor of those who are the target of the investigation."

One opinion

Ecker responded to Colbert's comments in a telephone interview yesterday: "Everybody's entitled to an opinion -- even if they're wrong."

Rollins did not return several phone calls asking for comment.

The 361-bed jail in Jessup has been enveloped in controversies for more than a year -- controversies that led to the January grand jury report.

Two jail guards are awaiting trial on charges they beat handcuffed inmates. Two other guards were fired late last year for having sexual relations with an inmate. And it was also revealed last year that a top-ranking commander, one of those accused in the alleged beatings, was not properly certified.

The grand jury heard lengthy testimony about the jail when it was investigating the alleged beatings of the inmates by the guards. In October and January, it issued indictments against Capt. Thomas V. Kimball and Officer Donald J. Pryor. Both were charged with assault and battery.

The grand jury's jail report, issued Jan. 16, recommends that a panel "independent and external from the Howard County Detention Center immediately be assigned to review, investigate and take necessary corrective action regarding practices" at the jail.

"The grand jury strongly recommends that necessary corrective actions are taken to prevent future problems associated with the handling of prisoners, the improvement of officer morale and the strengthening of management procedures," the report says.

But Ecker, saying that the grand jurors were out of line, wrote that he wants the two-page report expunged -- erased from the grand jury's public record.

"It was not in accordance with the law. It should not exist," Ecker said of the report in the interview.

In his letter to Kane, Ecker wrote that, by law, grand juries may investigate only the management of state prisons, not county jails.

No management review

His letter stated that the law requires that grand jurors visit the county jail only to "inquire into its condition, the manner in which it is kept and the treatment of prisoners." That, Ecker said, does not mean grand jurors are allowed to review management procedures.

Asked how grand jurors can look into the handling of prisoners without checking the jail's management, Ecker referred to his letter.

Gross, the second-ranking official in the county state's attorney office, said that, under Maryland law, county grand juries have the duty to report to the courts once a year on the condition of county jails.

Also, he said, the law does not limit the grand jury to examining state prisons. The state law says: "The grand jury [will] inquire into the conduct and management of each of the state correctional institutions or correctional facilities within the jurisdiction of the court "

In his letter, Ecker appeared to criticize the state's attorney's office in its handling of the grand jury -- even alleging that county laws may have been broken.

Personnel grievances

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