High-tech hearing, same old problems

This Just In. . .

July 08, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

The face of Albert Sims, accused of killing a 15-year-old boy in an old-fashioned act of brutal street justice, appeared before us yesterday through the surreal magic of a digital television feed from the Central Booking and Intake Center. A robotic camera panned across a pale, cinder-block room crowded with Baltimore's freshly arrested -- accused drug dealers, rapists and child abusers, all of them in yellow jumpsuits, all of them getting a bail hearing before a District Court judge a few miles away.

The judge, Ben C. Clyburn, could see the holding room at Central Booking through a black Sony television monitor in his courtroom in the Eastside District Court building on North Avenue. He controlled the camera from there.

"Who's in preset position one?" the judge asked.

"Mr. Sims," someone at Central Booking said into a microphone.

Tapping buttons, the judge directed the camera to "preset position one," where it found, at last, this Albert Sims -- Baltimore's latest Nathaniel Hurt -- an old man accused of killing a kid in retribution for an act of vandalism in a city neighborhood.

As the camera focused on the face of Albert Sims -- blocks of digitized color moving and forming a solid image -- you could see the years of his life in the long sags below his eyes and the deep furrows in the high forehead of his olive-shaped head. His hair was gray. He reminded me, in some odd way, of a retired baseball player; his face seemed familiar, almost famous. He sat next to a 24-year-old man named Truehart, accused of assaulting a police officer. Sims was by far the oldest man in the room at Central Booking. Seventy-seven and accused of murder, he did not seem to understand what was happening, or where to fix his eyes. He never spoke.

It was striking -- the process of criminal justice going high-tech like this while the streets still smolder with crime and poverty. We have more than 300 murders a year. We have more than 50,000 drug addicts. We have neighborhoods where men and women feel safe only after having armed themselves. We have a rate of juvenile crime that steadily erodes the future of the city. We have eruptions of anger that result in critical injury and death because of the easy availability of guns. We have the highest concentration of poverty in the state. We have families afflicted with the worst social diseases causing the worst human behavior, and not a clue what to do about most of it. And yet, we have fancy remote-control cameras for bail hearings. Machines we do well. It's people we can't seem to help.

Or even reach.

Did Albert Sims ask for help? Did he get it? Did anyone know his name before Sunday night and the death of Jermaine Jordan -- Baltimore's latest Vernon Holmes (the 13-year-old victim of Nathaniel Hurt's gun in 1994).

No one seems to know much about Sims. He lived on a street of vacant rowhouses. But even if he'd lived on a street of fully occupied homes, his neighbors might not have known who he was or what bothered him. We spend, after all, a lot of time in isolation -- indoors, in front of televisions, in cars to and from work, detached from the people around us.

That was another striking thing about yesterday's bail hearing -- the Orwellian nature of Albert Sims being digitized and examined at the touch of a button. The camera zoomed in and, as he sat in Central Booking and overheard the judge and his lawyer discussing him, Sims caught the camera. For a moment, he looked straight into it and squinted. Then he dropped his head into his left hand and all you could see in the television in Judge Clyburn's courtroom was Albert Sims' gray hair.

Barnes is a bad pick

The governor of Maryland's choice of Michael Barnes as state comptroller makes absolutely no sense, politically. Barnes is well-known in voter-rich Montgomery County? Since when? He's been out of public office since 1986. His last campaign ended in a primary defeat to Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat from voter-rich Baltimore.

It sounds crazy, considering the personalities, but Parris Glendening should have selected William Donald Schaefer to replace Louie Goldstein. Unlike Barnes, Schaefer actually held statewide office for eight years -- he was governor only four years ago -- and still is regarded from Oakland to Crisfield as the man who, as mayor for 15 years, saved Baltimore. He's mercurial and contentious and all that, and Glendening probably doesn't want him around to check the books and raise hell in Annapolis. But Schaefer would have been a smart choice.

Four reasons:

Schaefer will be a formidable campaigner, and he'll be able to raise money fast. Prediction: If he stays in the comptroller's race, he'll beat Barnes.

Marylanders are accustomed to an older, wiser, colorful person as the state's tax collector and financial watchdog. The avuncular Schaefer, honest, tough and shrewd, would have been the perfect replacement for Goldstein.

Selecting Schaefer would have been a popular move in Baltimore, where Glendening desperately needs support -- especially in light of Kurt Schmoke's endorsement of Eileen Rehrmann in the gubernatorial primary.

Schaefer recently endorsed Glendening for re-election, something he did not have to do. Returning the favor by appointing him comptroller would have revealed Glendening to be a grateful, magnanimous person, and it would have knocked a hole in the charge that he cannot be trusted.

But so it goes.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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