Seemingly solid case evaporates

Dismissal: Two city men charged in a robbery go free after their trial is repeatedly postponed by Circuit Court judges.

February 04, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

They stormed through the Super Pride on East Northern Parkway, waving a pistol and ordering terrified cashiers to empty their registers. They forced a family from their car at gunpoint. Then, they barged into a rowhouse, punching a mentally disabled man in the face before making off with his mother's Mercury Cougar.

After police arrested the two suspects several blocks away that April night in 1996, the case appeared to be picture-perfect for prosecutors. The men were carrying nearly $2,000 from the robbery. Witnesses identified the pair from photo lineups. One of the suspects even confessed, detectives say.

But three months ago, a judge quietly dismissed the armed robbery and carjacking charges in the case, ruling that prosecutors took too long to bring Christopher Wills and Kevin Cox to trial and held a critical court hearing without them.

As a result, Wills and Cox went free.

The case is not the first casualty of procedural mistakes at the Baltimore Circuit Court. But the dismissal is particularly troubling because court records show that prosecutors and judges knew for nearly a year that Wills was demanding his right to a ``speedy trial'' - and no one seemed to be listening.

Inside of seven months, Wills stood next to prosecutors and before two judges at least four times, pleading for a trial.

``I am asking you today, please, may I have a trial?'' Wills asked Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy Jr. on June 18, 1997, more than a year after his arrest. ``That's my constitutional right, and I've asserted that right. I haven't been laying back on the balls of my hands, just spinning the wheels of justice. I've been demanding this.''

McCurdy's reply: Case postponed because no judges were available to take the trial.

The victims of the brief but violent crime spree were the last to learn what happened to the case. No one from the state's attorney's office ever told them that the charges had been dismissed.

James Cook, whose family was forced from their car at gunpoint, said his wife took off from work four times to testify in court. Each time, he said, the trial was postponed.

``So they're running around scot-free in the streets?'' Cook asked in a recent interview, adding that one of the suspects ``could have shot both of us [and] my kids.''

The city's clogged and chaotic court system has recently come under attack because of repeated trial delays and other missteps, prompting the dismissal of serious charges and the release of defendants who spent little or no time behind bars for their crimes.

Last month, a judge dismissed murder charges against four suspects. In December, a murder suspect whose case had been postponed 17 times pleaded guilty to reduced charges and was freed after police misplaced evidence in the case. That same month, a sex crime conviction was erased by an appeals court because the man's trial had been delayed nine times over 16 months.

Under state and federal law, defendants are entitled to be tried within 180 days of theirarraignment, or the charges can be dismissed. But facing an out-of-control court docket, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in Baltimore have repeatedly postponed cases beyond the deadline, court files show.

Judges can postpone trials for ``good cause.'' But in Baltimore, ``good cause'' has come to mean practically any cause.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said her prosecutors' hands were tied in the Wills and Cox case because judges were not always available to preside over the trial.

``We were going under the assumption that if there was no court available, we could not try a case, OK?'' Baltimore's top prosecutor said defiantly last night after attending a community event. ``What am I going to do? Make the [judges] give us a court?''

But Jessamy acknowledged that the dismissal of the charges did not prompt her to change the way her office handles cases.

``I guess I did not,'' she said. ``I guess I made a mistake, huh?''

During the past two weeks, Jessamy declined repeated requests for an interview about the case. Her spokeswoman, E. Francine Stokes, said: ``The record can speak for itself.''

The record shows that:

Prosecutors and judges did little to take the case before a jury quickly - even though they knew that Wills was demanding a speedy trial and that his case was past the 180-day deadline.

Prosecutors also never told Wills about a critical postponement hearing. The hearing was held without Wills or Cox being present, resulting in a delay that would lead to the collapse of the case.

The case was postponed at least twice because judges planned to take off from work on days when the trial was assigned to them. Court supervisors knew at least two weeks in advance of the scheduling conflicts, but the trial was not immediately assigned to a different judge, leading to more critical delays.

'This is a robbery'

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