Evidence reform is demanded

Md. legislator vows to withhold $500,000 from city prosecutor

'Destroys public confidence'

Hidden evidence led to wrongful conviction

July 13, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Saying that evidence problems are destroying the public's confidence in Baltimore's criminal justice system, lawmakers and legal experts called yesterday for reforms to ensure that defendants receive fair trials and the public is protected from criminal suspects.

The calls for change were prompted by a two-part series in The Sun that detailed how the failure to turn over evidence to defendants has resulted in a wrongful conviction, trial delays and freedom for suspected criminals.

Lawmakers, legal experts and politicians said neglecting to disclose or exchange evidence, a process called discovery, has serious consequences.

"This kind of thing should never happen," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said. "It's devastating, both to our efforts to control crime and to uphold our constitutional system of justice."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat who chairs an influential public safety subcommittee in Annapolis, agreed.

"This behavior by the city prosecutors doesn't just undermine public confidence in the justice system," he said, "it destroys public confidence in the justice system."

Among the reforms being considered:

Require judges to enforce evidence laws by holding prosecutors in contempt of court for failing to comply with discovery rules.

Appoint a judge to resolve disputes about the disclosure of evidence.

Institute an open-file policy at the state's attorney's office so defense attorneys can easily obtain evidence.

Hold pre-trial conferences, enabling lawyers and judges to determine the status of evidence and cases.

Conduct a top-to-bottom review of the state's attorney's office and its policies on the handling of evidence.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declined to comment yesterday. "She's not available," said her spokeswoman, Francine E. Stokes.

Franchot said he plans to withhold $500,000 in state funds from Jessamy's office unless she solves evidence problems there and he plans to summon her to Annapolis next month.

That money is in addition to $17.8 million that state lawmakers have promised to block from various city justice agencies unless significant reforms are made. That action was taken after four murder suspects were set free in January because of trial delays.

Franchot said the reputation of the city is at stake.

"Who wants to invest in a city where murderers are arrested, but not prosecuted, or the wrong people are prosecuted?" Franchot asked.

The Sun series detailed the case of Antoine Jerome Pettiford, who was wrongfully convicted because evidence implicating other suspects was withheld, and cases in which criminal charges against others were dismissed because evidence was not turned over by prosecutors.

The coordinator of a council convened earlier this year to reform the city's courts said yesterday that the cases outlined in the newspaper series represented the antithesis of justice.

"What resulted here is just what you don't want to have happen in the criminal court," said John H. Lewin Jr., coordinator of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, formed after several cases were dismissed because of trial delays.

"You're putting an innocent man behind bars for four years, and you have got six or seven [defendants] being let go."

By law, prosecutors must disclose arrest warrants, witness identifications and evidence that might help the defense within 25 days of arraignments. Additional deadlines are set for subsequent disclosures before trial.

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 incorporated in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and included 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. Sometimes they wait months to review the material.

Lewin said judges should hold prosecutors accountable -- a step they have neglected to take in the past. Any prosecutor who does not turn over evidence on time should be held in contempt of court, he said.

"All it requires is for the judiciary to take a hold of this and say, `We are not going to let this happen,' " Lewin said. "We shouldn't have to get to the point where perfectly good, valid cases get thrown out because some assistant state's attorney is too preoccupied."

Judge David B. Mitchell, who began in January supervising the city's criminal case docket, said that he has been examining the problems with evidence and is considering assigning a judge to preside over discovery disputes.

"What we need to do is get more quickly into these [discovery issues] when they are in the embryonic stage," Mitchell said. "That's what we are trying to have happen now. I can't control the past. I can affect the future.

State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris said pretrial hearings also should be part of the routine so cases will be ready to go to trial on time. Defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges could determine the status of evidence at the conferences and resolve any disputes before they threaten to undercut cases.

"As a defense lawyer, [a pre-trial hearing] not only shows me the weaknesses in the state's case, but it also shows me the strong points, and allows me to talk to my client about the possibility of an early plea," Harris said.

He said he has repeatedly made suggestions to reform the system. Each time, he said, judges have rebuffed him, explaining there is not enough time to hold the status hearings.

"They say it's the way things have always been done," Harris said. "But judges have to get involved. They have to be interested in victims and victims' rights, and they have to be interested in defendants and defendants' rights."

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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