A fundamental failure of the justice system

Rights denied: State's Attorney Jessamy must find ways to restore confidence in her office.

July 12, 1999

TOO OFTEN in Baltimore, sloppy work by prosecutors allows the guilty to go free, jails the innocent and leaves a cynical public to conclude that justice is served only by accident.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has inexplicably declined to explain these calamitous lapses. She must immediately reconsider, explain how the failures occurred and outline her remedies.

At issue is a fundamental right conferred by the U.S. Constitution: the right of the accused to examine all of the evidence to be used against them at trial. That right is considered so sacred that when it is denied, judges are obliged to dismiss charges.

In at least eight cases involving drug trafficking and attempted murder in the past two years, that's exactly what happened, according to a Sun series by reporters Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham.

One man who might have been exonerated by witnesses unknown to him or his defense was sentenced to life in prison.

A student of the Baltimore court system, including Ms. Jessamy's office, asserts that problems with what lawyers call "discovery" are pervasive and long-standing. Other observers of the system agree: Prosecutors routinely fail to meet their responsibilities, and judges often fail to sanction them.

Ms. Jessamy's decision to stonewall reporters on these cases adds insult to injury. It also does not serve her interests: Does she have an explanation? Why not offer it? If she knows of deficiencies, why not come clean and promise reforms?

In Maryland, the approach to discovery varies. Some counties -- but not Baltimore City -- employ what is called an "open files" system, in which almost everything in a criminal case (short of so-called work product, such as notes) is available when requested. That policy has the advantage of protecting prosecutors when lawyers contend after a conviction that they were denied access to material that might have allowed their clients to go free.

The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated. Public confidence in the justice system, already weak, will wilt in the face of these reports. Some say this problem is not new to Baltimore, but Ms. Jessamy is in charge now and she must be the agent of change.

She should start by offering her views on what has happened. The proper forum might well be the General Assembly, which has taken an active role in efforts to deal with problems throughout the Baltimore criminal justice system.

Though Ms. Jessamy could not be compelled to testify, she has voluntarily done so in the past because the assembly controls her budget. Already, the assembly has held back $18 million, subject to a report on efforts to improve the city's justice system.

To insulate them from political manipulation, state's attorneys are meant to be independent entities. But there are limits.

A state's attorney can be impeached under the Maryland Constitution. All that is needed is to prove the prosecutor has willfully neglected duty or is incompetent.

As a member of the bar who may wish to run for re-election, to continue her career in politics or even to practice privately in Maryland, Ms. Jessamy ought to come clean.

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