Solid criminal cases slip away

Discovery: Evidence problems lead to dismissals of serious charges, including attempted murder and drug trafficking.

July 12, 1999|By CAITLIN FRANCKE AND SCOTT HIGHAM | CAITLIN FRANCKE AND SCOTT HIGHAM,SUN STAFF

When police carted Gordon Ragler and his wife away in handcuffs last year, neighbors thought the around-the-clock drug dealing in their Southwest Baltimore community had finally come to an end.

But 13 months later, the Raglers slipped through a net carefully crafted by undercover drug officers and confidential informants. It didn't seem to matter that police conducted hours of surveillance of open-air drug sales or collected solid evidence to make their case: 50 bags of cocaine and a loaded semiautomatic pistol.

The Raglers didn't prevail because of a masterful defense strategy, a bad judge or a soft jury. Instead, the couple went free because prosecutors in the Baltimore state's attorney's office botched the case.

Violating a basic constitutional requirement, prosecutors failed to disclose evidence against the Raglers before their trial. After futile requests to see the material, their lawyer asked a judge to dismiss the charges. The judge agreed.

Neighbors and community activists in the Lakeland section of the city are infuriated: How could the prosecutors let a serious and seemingly solid case slip away? The Raglers, who deny the charges, were accused of selling cocaine near Lakeland Elementary and Middle School.

"It's like we're fighting to get [drugs] out of our community, and they are letting them come back," said Margie Rihtaric, a lifelong Lakeland resident and president of the community association. "It's not fair to the community."

The Ragler case is one in a series of cases mishandled by prosecutors who neglected to turn over evidence, known as "discovery." Because of incomplete or nonexistent recordkeeping at the courthouse, it is difficult to determine exactly how many cases have been ruined.

But a review of records by The Sun found that the cases against at least eight defendants were undercut because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence, prompting judges to dismiss the criminal charges -- including attempted murder and drug trafficking.

The cases are prime examples of a pervasive problem in the city's criminal justice system that court officials have taken few meaningful steps to address. The problem is confirmed by court records; interviews with defense lawyers, judges and prosecutors; and a study of the courthouse funded by the U.S. Justice Department.

The coordinator of a new council convened to reform the city's courts said prosecutors routinely ignore the law requiring them to promptly turn over evidence -- and judges rarely hold them accountable.

"It's not at the top of [a prosecutor's] list of things to do," said the coordinator, John H. Lewin Jr. If a judge "isn't requiring you to do it, and isn't sanctioning you when you don't do it, you let it slip."

The failure to disclose evidence to the defense ignores two centuries of American legal principles. The right of the accused to examine evidence is so fundamental that it is embodied in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and codified in the laws of every state.

Evidence delays also contribute to a crushing backlog of cases. Suspects who haven't seen evidence against them are reluctant to accept plea deals. Rather than resolve cases, they will wait months, sometimes more than a year, to review the material.

The failure to turn over evidence is the second major flaw to come to light recently at the courthouse.

In the past two years, other criminal suspects -- those charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and carjacking -- have been freed because prosecutors and judges failed to try their cases within the state's 180-day deadline.

Whether it is miscues with evidence or failing to bring suspects to trial on time, the results are the same: Criminal charges are tossed out, and suspects go free.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declined repeated requests for an interview. Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck acknowledged that mistakes were made because the office handles thousands of cases every year.

'Victims all over again'

Baltimore police first came to know Gordon Ragler in the 1970s, when he was charged with theft, shoplifting and grand larceny. Since then, the man accused of running drugs near Lakeland Elementary and Middle School was convicted of drug and gun crimes, assault and battery.

By the time FBI Informant 6204 gave police a tip in January 1998 that a man named "Gordy" was selling drugs, officers were all-too familiar with the target of their probe.

The officers spied on Gordon and Beverly Ragler and their associates for a week. They said drugs were being stashed at a house the couple rented on Mallview Road and sold out of a black Honda Accord blocks away.

On Jan. 16, 1998, the officers raided the house. They also searched the Honda used by Beverly Ragler's son, Garnett Vinson, and another man, Ehrand Sewell. Police said they recovered 40 bags of cocaine and a .45-caliber pistol. On Feb. 6, they raided another house tied to the operation, discovering another 10 bags of cocaine.

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