Brief court visit is exercise in deja vu

This Just In...

February 24, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

YESTERDAY morning, in just 70 minutes of docket in the District Court of Maryland, a citizen could see and appreciate the kind of social and systemic conditions that keep the arteries of criminal justice clogged. I hate to say we've seen it all before, but we've seen it all before - drug addicts from the city, drug addicts from the suburbs, cops pulled off street duty for relatively minor cases, cases dismissed because cops or other witnesses don't show up. One defendant, his case a perfect candidate for expeditious treatment in District Court, asked for a jury trial in Circuit Court only because he showed up without an attorney and didn't know what else to do.

I drop by the Edward F. Borgerding District Court Building on Wabash Avenue, Judge Jack I. Lesser presiding, about 9:40 a.m.

The first case I catch is that of Defendant Williams. Tall, 20-year-old woman in a charcoal sweater, tight black jeans and confusing hair. She's from Harford County. In August, she brought her problems to the city and overdosed on heroin in a house in Southwest Baltimore. Paramedics took her to a hospital. Police charged her with possession. In methadone maintenance now, she claims to have learned her lesson. ``You're lucky to be alive,'' Lesser tells her. He puts Williams on supervised probation, with drug screening, for 18 months, orders her to stay in treatment and to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings twice a week.

Next case: Preliminary hearing for Defendant Brown, male, 20 years old. He wears a dirty T-shirt, baggy jeans, handcuffs and shackles. Arrested last month and charged with driving a stolen car into two other vehicles and a guy on a bicycle. The guy on the bicycle had a fractured collarbone and liver damage. Police said the car Brown was driving had been taken in an armed carjacking Jan. 18 - by someone else. Why Brown had the car is not explained. The state requests a postponement; some witnesses have failed to appear. Lesser sets bail at $75,000 and sets another hearing date for March 15.

Next.

Defendant Johnson, male, 40 years old. Must have dressed for court in a hurry - red T-shirt over a long-sleeved gray sweat shirt, blue gym shorts over long johns, white tube socks and black work boots. Been in jail since Jan. 18. Allegedly lifted five cans of Maxwell House from the Stop Shop & Save on Edmondson Avenue. Lesser finds him guilty and notes Johnson's record of thefts and possession of illegal drugs, as well as other charges set for March hearings in the city and Baltimore County. Lesser sentences him to time served - 35 days.

Next.

Defendant Davis. Also charged with shoplifting. Fails to appear. Lesser issues a warrant for her arrest.

Next.

Defendant Daly. We never hear what he's charged with. The victim of whatever he did is not in the courtroom. Dismissed.

Next.

Defendant Archer. He appears for his hearing but the Mass Transit Administration police officer who arrested him does not. Dismissed. (Again, the charge is not announced in court. We're left to trust that it's not terribly serious.)

Next.

Defendant Stevens. He looks like the actor Steve Buscemi, older and balding. He wears a cable-knit sweater and jeans. Charged with possession of heroin. Already on probation for some other crime. Two weeks ago, Lesser told him to get an attorney. But he didn't. So here's Stevens again, sans counsel. ``The state says they're ready to proceed,'' warns Lesser. What's a defendant without a clue to do? Had he secured counsel, Stevens might have been willing to do what defendants frequently do in District Court - stand trial, get it over with. ``I can't defend myself,'' he says. He opts for a jury trial in Circuit Court. He'll take time from another court on another day.

Next.

Defendant Casey. He looks too old for this. He looks dazed, as well. Wears the same red-and-black Eddie Bauer anorak he wore the January day a Southwestern officer found a handgun and rock cocaine on him. Lesser listens to the officer's testimony and finds probable cause to send Casey to Circuit Court for trial.

Next.

Defendant Greene. He hears his name called, rises from the seat next to me, takes two steps toward the trial table and hears the judge dismiss the charge. Whatever the charge was. It's not announced. What's announced is the reason for the dismissal - the arresting Housing Authority police officer has not shown up.

Next.

Defendant Burke. Pony-tailed, goateed 23-year-old from Carroll County. He's already serving time in a Maryland prison for assault. He's charged in this case with possession of cocaine and with having a shotgun inside a motor vehicle, a violation of the Baltimore City Code. Burke pleads not guilty and agrees not to challenge a statement of facts: One night in July, police stopped his minivan near Old Frederick Road, found several vials of cocaine in the van's cup holder and a Remington shotgun in the rear.

The record shows that Burke has been to court many times before - for reckless endangerment, for battery, for breaking and entering, for driving while intoxicated, for battery, for theft, for possession of a deadly weapon. Just before calling for a 15-minute recess, Lesser adds nine months to the 18-month sentence Burke is already serving.

It's 10:50 a.m. I leave. I always try to leave on a positive note.

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