Court chiefs were told of trial-delay dangers

Warning: They knew in 1995 that postponements were clogging the Baltimore system. But the problem wasn't solved, and some violent criminals have been freed.

January 17, 1999|By Caitlin Francke, Scott Higham and Kate Shatzkin | Caitlin Francke, Scott Higham and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When a Baltimore judge dismissed murder charges two weeks ago against four men who had waited for years for their trial to begin, those who manage the city's clogged court system seemed stunned it had come to this.

They shouldn't have been.

Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys and police who play key roles in the city's never-ending criminal cases have been warned since 1995 of the trouble they could be in. But they failed to do anything meaningful to stop the delays and make sure that suspects would not go free because of them.

For years, the ballooning caseload balanced precariously on what lawyers and judges thought was a rock-solid foundation: the notion that when judges decided to postpone cases they would never be questioned. Postponements are granted for virtually every excuse imaginable: vacations for judges and lawyers, maternity leaves, training courses and judges who are constantly busy.

In one pending, 2-year-old murder case, the trial was postponed because one judge was occupied and another was on vacation. And the prosecutor? She was "tired."

But with one court decision last month, the rules suddenly changed. The state's Court of Special Appeals erased a sex-crime conviction, finding the case's nine postponements over 16 months were excessive. The case against the four men suspected of murdering Shawn Suggs, 21, was summarily dismissed Jan. 5.

The two cases were not the first casualties. A series of cases examined by The Sun show that others involving violent crimes have been dismissed or disposed of with the defendants serving little, if any, prison time. Others could follow.

Among the cases:

A judge in September dismissed attempted first-degree murder and armed robbery charges against Michael Ruben, accused of robbing the owners of a liquor store. Police mistakenly destroyed evidence during a series of delays in the case.

Ronald A. Alexander, charged with three holdups, went free after a guilty plea netted a sentence of roughly the time he had served. He had waited more than two years for a trial. One of his victims was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, who became infuriated by at least 12 delays in the case.

The trial of William Flowers, charged with shooting a man to death, was postponed 17 times over three years. Flowers pleaded guilty to second-degree murder last week, then went free on the time he had served because police lost a critical file during the delays.

Kenneth Robinson, charged with first-degree murder, has waited more than two years for a trial. His case has been postponed nine times, he has not waived his right to a speedy trial, and he continues to sit in jail. His next scheduled trial date is Feb. 1.

Those in charge of Baltimore's courts blame the problems on a surge in drug cases and a lack of resources -- problems in most big city courthouses. They also cite the small pool of defense lawyers and prosecutors, who on any given day are scheduled to be in different courtrooms.

But Timothy Corley, the DEA agent robbed by Alexander, finds the excuses meaningless. He said the delays send a troubling message to victims of violent crimes -- even to those who understand the difficulties of modern-day law enforcement.

"If I was a civilian, I wouldn't testify because of the ineptitude of the system down there," Corley said. "People just can't be jerked around like that. You keep throwing in these delays, and people say: `Forget about it.' "

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who is appealing the dismissal of the Suggs and Ruben cases, bristled last week at the notion that her office had not done all it could to prevent delays. She said her prosecutors, particularly those in an understaffed homicide unit, work "damn hard" and are "demoralized" by problems that they feel are beyond their control.

She wants money to hire more prosecutors and staffers.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said the city can't afford to do that, and has asked that the state take over the troubled system. After the charges were dropped against the four murder suspects two weeks ago, Gov. Parris N. Glendening renewed a proposed state takeover.

"Something must be done now," he said, calling the situation "intolerable."

Jessamy acknowledged that the latest court decisions mean she must start doing things differently -- even if that means pushing back drug prosecutions and weathering further criticism from police.

"The only thing we can do is really and truly end up trying all the violent crime cases," she said.

Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who recently started supervising the court's criminal docket, said he will crack down on postponements.

He said he wants first to resolve cases with "double-digit" postponements. "Try it, dismiss it, plead it, resolve it," Mitchell said. "That's what I expect to see on all those trial dates."

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