Tough cases pursued, McLendon says But her high rate of convictions might be viewed as flawed

October 27, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon promotes herself in her literature as a tough prosecutor who "doesn't just talk about fighting crime," but "gets involved."

In her race for re-election, the 47-year-old former police officer-turned-lawyer points to her record of establishing programs to help victims, deterring juvenile crime and getting prosecutors involved in local communities. She has earned a reputation among other state's attorneys as a leader with energy and an enthusiasm to learn about trends in criminal justice.

But her No. 1 "guiding principle," says McLendon, a Republican, is holding criminals accountable. It is the same tough-on-crime message she came into office with in 1994 as part of the Republican wave that changed the dynamics of Howard County leadership.

She boasts of high criminal conviction rates -- that, on close inspection, may not be as robust as they appear.

McLendon says that since 1995, when she took office, the office has maintained a 96 percent conviction rate. The bulk of the 10,000 cases a year her office handles end in voluntary pleas. She says it is difficult to document the 96 percent rate because of an antiquated computer system.

The conviction rate that she notes in cases resulting in jury trials -- 73 percent -- appears to be on a par with the national average, according to U.S. Justice Department figures.

Although the percentage she cites is correct, it doesn't indicate that many times a defendant was not convicted on the most serious of several charges.

In one case a defendant was charged with drunken driving, speeding and running a red light. The jury found him guilty of minor offenses -- the traffic violations -- and not the drunken-driving charge.

An analysis by The Sun of 162 cases from 1995 to this year found that the defendant was acquitted of the most serious charge, or the most serious charge was dropped, in about 60 percent of the cases. The cases are all those taken before juries during McLendon's tenure, according to summaries provided by the county Circuit Court commissioner.

It's the view of McLendon -- and of prosecutors in other jurisdictions -- that if a defendant is found guilty of any of a list of charges, it still counts as a conviction, regardless of how minor the charge may be.

The analysis shows:

Six of 10 child abuse cases -- an area McLendon has said she targets -- resulted in not-guilty findings on the child abuse charge. Her statistics on child abuse cases show that 10 of 17 cases resulted in not-guilty verdicts.

Eight of 34 assault cases and three of 11 cases of murder, attempted murder, assault with intent to murder or manslaughter resulted in guilty verdicts on the most serious charges.

Sixty-seven percent of the cases involving sexual offenses; 43 percent of robbery cases and 64 percent of armed robbery cases ended in not-guilty findings on the most serious charges.

Fifty percent of the cases involving burglary; 35 percent of drug cases and 45 percent of drunken-driving charges ended in not-guilty findings.

Criminal justice experts say it is common for prosecutors to charge a person with several crimes, knowing some might be dropped or the jury might convict on only some. But one expert expressed concern at McLendon's number of not-guilty verdicts the most serious charges.

"With that number of not-guilty verdicts, it raises questions of, 'Are the [cases] not being screened the way they should be?' and 'Are we taking cases to trial that we know we can win beyond a reasonable doubt?' " said Abraham Dash, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "Any good prosecutional team should be using this discretion and asking themselves this."

Record defended

McLendon defends her record on such convictions, pointing to "dozens of uncontrollable factors," including evidence from police, witness credibility and juror bias, which can influence the outcome of cases. She said she is confident her office has done "an excellent" job in prosecuting cases and deciding what to take to trial.

"We're not losing cases because of a failure of litigation skills," said McLendon. "What [conviction rates] tell us is that we are trying tough cases.

"We're trying tough child abuse cases, domestic violence cases and others to achieve justice," she said. "It's not about winning; it's about doing justice. The best we can do is bring them in and try them. We're hanging tough."

In a 1996 date rape case, a young man was charged with second-degree rape, assault and battery and several other sex offenses against a woman he dated. The jury found him guilty only of a perverted sexual practice.

Last week, McLendon described the case as one in which there was a credible defendant, and questions arose among the jurors as to whether the sexual relations were consensual.

'You go with it'

"I believed the girl," McLendon said. "I'm going to try it. I want [prosecutors] to not worry about a loss. If you agree with the victim, you believe it happened, you go with it."

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