Smothers case makes us feel cheated

September 11, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The morning newspaper tells us killings are down in the city of Baltimore, not including police killings, which are all the rage these days. With "only" 209 homicides recorded so far this year, the city's on a pace for its lowest murder count in eight years. And State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy just took it upon herself to lower the total by one.

Whatever happened at Lexington Market last month, when Officer Charles M. Smothers II fired a bullet into James Quarles and he crumpled and died in front of a video camera, it wasn't murder, Jessamy said Monday, announcing she would not take the case before a grand jury.

Pity poor Quarles' family, anguishing in public about the needless death of a loved one. Pity poor Jessamy, who is a sensitive woman and honest by nature. Most prosecutors deal with a jury of 12. She's got a jury of everybody in the crowd who watched the standoff at Lexington Market, and everybody in the Baltimore metro area with a television set who's seen the endless repeat showings of the final instant of Quarles' life. All of them now consider themselves members of an ad hoc jury ready to render verdicts of their own.

So it was a no-win situation for Jessamy, whatever she decided. In deciding not to take the facts before a grand jury, she gave several reasons. She said she'd interviewed lots of eyewitnesses who claimed Officer Smothers acted appropriately. (I interviewed lots of eyewitnesses, too, and they felt Smothers was out of line, so there's at least room for debate here.)

She said she would not presume to judge police officers who act "within the scope of their training and the law." (Among other things, neither she nor anybody else can imagine the pressures of a large and noisy crowd [See Olesker, 4b] swarming about - some of whom, things being how they are, were carrying hidden weapons of their own.)

And she mentioned politics, which touches everything.

Grand jury proceedings are secret. In secret, lots of people imagine conspiracies. In the city of Baltimore, with its various class and color divisions, with its history of police tensions, Jessamy had concerns beyond the simple facts of the case.

What if she brought every piece of evidence, and every witness, before this grand jury - and the grand jury agreed with her evaluation, and decided collectively not to indict Smothers? To outsiders, with no access to the secret proceedings, would it look like a fix?

Maybe. But it's the mechanism we have for investigating such things. By deciding to bypass the grand jury, Jessamy unwittingly opened a door, and in stepped those who are now loudly calling for a citizen investigation panel.

In the current climate, such a call is not only understandable, it's redundant.

We already have a citizen investigation panel, in place for many years. It's called a grand jury.

What do we do, keep forming new panels until we get one that decides cases the way we want them decided? No, we use the mechanisms we've put into place and count on the honesty of ordinary citizens. Instead, Jessamy decided to take the heat herself. It was a tough, brave call, but she probably roused more suspicion of law enforcement in the process.

What everybody in Baltimore saw on that videotape was four armed police and one puny guy with a knife. What we ask ourselves, instinctively, is: Couldn't four overpower one? Couldn't they wait as long as it took, rather than take a life?

Jessamy's response - and Officer Smothers' - is that the videotape doesn't show us everything. We don't see if Quarles' hand tightens on his knife, or if his feet shift for a lunge forward. Such things might be true but still fail to sound convincing. Come on, we think: It's still four against one, and the four have guns.

What few of us can imagine is the crowd that day, and the sense of threat in the air that did no good for either the police or Quarles. There was a lot of noise. There were probably weapons.

This city congratulates itself on a falling homicide rate - but we're still looking at about 300 murders by year's end. The number of shootings is down, too - but we're still likely to see more than 1,100 shootings by year's end.

The other day, we had a fellow shot and killed near Lake Clifton High School. Arrested for the shooting was a 16-year-old kid who was charged with another killing - when he was 14. The kid's an admitted drug dealer. He is said to have an IQ of 64. He is also said to be making $1,400 a week selling crack cocaine.

That computes to $70,000 a year. When 16-year-old kids with 64 IQs are making $70,000 selling drugs that fuel an entire community's crime, it gives us an idea what the police are facing on any given day.

Does it excuse the killing of James Quarles? Of course not. But maybe it gives us some notion of the pressure felt at a place like Lexington Market, when a man has a knife in his hand and refuses to drop it, and a crowd is hollering, and tempers are short.

A grand jury could have weighed all of that. Maybe it would have agreed with Pat Jessamy, maybe not. But it's the process we've set up for such inquiries, and the process feels a little shortchanged today.

Pub Date: 9/11/97

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