Justice delayed denies justice for all

Broken courts: Judge's release of four charged

January 09, 1999

MARYLAND courts must "provide for the efficient, effective and timely administration of justice," began a report from a legislative commission that studied the state justice system two years ago.

Freeing murder suspects because of repeated trial delays and then apologizing to the victim's family for the system's sloppiness horribly fails that definition.

Yet that's what happened this week. Four men charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Shawn L. Suggs, 21, of Baltimore in 1995 were released on the grounds they had been denied a speedy trial after 14 delays, dating to April 1996. If any good is to come from the ruling of Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown, perhaps it will spur politicians who have ignored repeated warnings that the city's court system is overwhelmed.

State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who apologized to the victim's family, says her office will appeal the judge's dismissal. If successful, the suspects could -- and should -- be recharged; one is still held for another crime.

That would help set things right -- in this case. Unfortunately, the system's malfunction didn't begin or end with the Suggs slaying. As recently as last month, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals tossed out a sex-crime conviction in Baltimore that was repeatedly delayed by lack of an available courtroom.

The law requires that defendants be tried within six months of an initial court appearance. While judges have latitude to grant postponements Judge Brown's release of the four defendants shows the dangerous consequences of flouting the legal deadline.

The defendants' release has been followed by a predictable flurry of finger pointing over who is to blame for the outrageous delays. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges all had a hand in the postponements.

Yet on one point there is agreement: Minor tinkering won't fix the systemic problems of Baltimore's Circuit Court system. Too few resources, too many cases and too many criminals are dumped on too few judges and courtrooms.

Like the Suggs case, the Circuit Court often seems to fall between the cracks -- an arm of the state, funded unevenly by the city and counties, with no central administrator. The strain is worst in Baltimore, whose 22,000 criminal court filings in 1996 were more than twice the total in the largest counties and 10 times that of most subdivisions. Yet Baltimore's proportionate spending on criminal courts is half everyone else's.

The problem demands action during the coming legislative session in Annapolis.

News footage this week of two of the freed suspects dashing from the courthouse was chilling. That image, and the Police Department's high-profile failure to hold Baltimore's 1998 homicides under 300, feed perceptions of an unsafe city.

Sedric Suggs said he doesn't expect justice from the court system for his son's death. "Vengeance," he says, "is in the hands of the Lord." The justice system must not be let off that easily.

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