Prosecutor announces changes Reorganization goal is to speed justice in city, Jessamy says

'I think it will help'

Restructuring goes into effect in Sept., to include new unit

April 12, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy announced yesterday a major reorganization of her office with the goal of more effective prosecutions, speeding justice and making an easier system for victims and witnesses of crime.

The restructuring, unveiled to the city's 150 prosecutors at a staff meeting, will free a sixth circuit judge and courtroom for felony trials starting this fall, in the hope of reducing the amount of time defendants and victims wait for cases to be resolved.

Among other things, the plan calls for the same assistant state's attorney to handle a felony case from shortly after an arrest through the trial, and the same judge to preside over that case from arraignment to sentencing.

Felony cases now pass through the hands of as many as three prosecutors with different functions, making for a sometimes cumbersome process for victims and witnesses, Jessamy said. Circuit Court arraignments are conducted by a different judge from the one who gets the case for trial.

Under the current system, a homicide case is investigated and a suspect indicted by an assistant state's attorney from the violent crimes unit -- but usually handed over, after indictment, to a trial prosecutor who must learn the facts, witnesses and legal issues.

Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, said he hopes the changes will ease the court's crowded dockets. "I think it will help substantially," he said.

Agent Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a city police spokesman, declined to comment on the changes.

The reorganization, which is to take effect in September, will create a new homicide unit in Jessamy's office.

That unit, an expanded version of what is now the violent crimes division, will be composed of three teams of four attorneys each who eventually will investigate, indict and try their own cases.

A rotation system will allow less-experienced prosecutors to assist more seasoned attorneys in handling serious cases.

"This, I think, will make a difference in quality," Jessamy said. "The earlier [trial prosecutors] are involved, hopefully the better advice they can give to police, and we get better cases."

Jessamy called the changes an attempt to make prosecutors more accountable for the cases they handle and to decrease duplication of efforts. No jobs will be eliminated by the plan, she said.

"You're going to have consistency and continuity in terms of felony cases that you never had before," she said. "Hopefully it's going to be a lot more efficient, and the citizens will be better served."

The change also may discourage attorneys from trying to choose which judge will handle a case.

Now, defendants have the opportunity to negotiate plea bargains at the time of arraignment. If a deal is not reached, a trial is scheduled in front of a different judge, who might be known for more lenient sentencing, and often a different prosecutor.

Under the new system, the judge and assistant state's attorney would be the same throughout.

"We believe that with one attorney responsible for the case from the beginning, before the same judge from the beginning, there won't be any reason not to deal seriously with our prosecutors from the beginning of the case," said Assistant State's Attorney Alan C. Woods III, chief of the office's research and statistics division.

A flood of drug cases, brought on in part by the drug "sweeps" initiated by Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, has backed up cases in Circuit Court. About 3,600 felony defendants were awaiting trial there at the end of March.

In February, Jessamy announced the creation of a 14-member unit to concentrate on investigating and prosecuting gun cases. The unit will focus on nonfatal crimes involving guns, with the goal of tracking their use and getting guns off the streets.

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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