Stopgap plan aims to preserve drug cases As trial deadlines near, city courts focus on quick action

October 22, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Fearful that some criminal charges may be dismissed, Baltimore court officials have designed a stop-gap plan to ensure that defendants facing felony drug charges have attorneys to represent them in court.

Under the plan, formally announced yesterday, some of the 350 indigent defendants who have been denied attorneys because the Office of the Public Defender does not have the staff to represent them will be brought back into court between Nov. 2 and 24.

A public defender will represent them and negotiate plea agreements or set trial dates, said Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy.

The cases brought in will be those in danger of being dismissed under the state's speedy trial rules, which require that all cases be tried within 180 days of a defendant's first court appearance.

The deadline for some cases is the end of November.

Priority also will be given to those cases in which the defendants are jailed.

Neither McCurdy nor city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy could say how many cases are at risk of being dismissed.

Top officials at the public defender's office -- which provides legal representation for the poor -- did not return calls seeking comment.

Though the plan was seen as progress in the long-building problem, troubles caused by the shortage of public defenders are not likely to end.

It was not clear yesterday whether public defenders will represent all the 350 indigent people they have told they cannot aid because of lack of resources.

All defendants are entitled under the law to an attorney.

Several of the cases are expected to be postponed beyond the state's six-month speedy trial deadline -- raising issues that could be fodder for appeals.

McCurdy can postpone a case beyond the deadline if he finds "good cause." He said he will evaluate each case individually.

In addition, a backlog of drug cases will likely develop as new cases continue to come into the system.

There may be pressure on all sides to reach plea bargains in the cases to get them out of the system, legal experts said.

"They will be making all kinds of deals," said Abe Krash, a Georgetown University law professor and attorney who worked on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established all defendants' right to an attorney.

Krash said the plan was "a step in the right direction" but expressed concern about the shortage of public defenders that led to the problems in the first place.

The lack of attorneys has meant that defendants stumble through court proceedings and sometimes have only advice from the judge to rely on to make decisions about whether to accept a plea bargain from prosecutors.

McCurdy and Jessamy both said they are supporting efforts by the public defender's office to secure funds for additional staff. The public defender's office, which has 32 attorneys to try all felony cases, has said it needs 10 more attorneys as well as support staff to handle the additional caseload in the drug courts.

"The new cases are going to be backed up," Jessamy said. "We don't want to get backed up too far."

Many in the legal community say the situation stems from a historic underfunding of the public defender's office. However, officials in the office say the legislature is not to blame for the current dilemma.

The legislature has approved the public defender's budget -- $40 million -- as presented every year, said George M. Lipman, an assistant public defender who also works as the office's lobbyist.

The office, sources say, was blindsided in May when Baltimore's chief judge, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, opened two new criminal drug courts just after the legislative session. That meant prosecutors and the public defenders had little chance to get funds for additional staff.

The prosecutor's office shifted its attorneys -- who outnumber public defenders nearly 2 to 1 -- around in order to staff the courts.

The public defender's office began sending out letters telling defendants they were eligible for a free lawyer, but the office could not provide them with one.

Yesterday that tension was evident in the announcement of the plan to resolve the staffing problems. The announcement said that "no new initiatives requiring additional resources will be undertaken without the agreement of all components of the criminal justice system."

Judge Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, said the answer to the problems lies in analyzing how cases flow through the system and how best to handle them.

Baltimore's criminal justice system "cannot work unless we all [work] together," Bell said.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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