Angry crowd speaks for fed-up public: `Justicia!'

July 13, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE VOICES behind Jose Luaces were too soft in the beginning, as though feeling a little timid, as though not wanting to call too much attention to their own sound. And so Luaces, marching at the front of this demonstration by the Baltimore Circuit Court buildings, raised his own voice heartily, raised it above the din of all noontime traffic yesterday on Calvert Street, and this time he asked the question in Spanish, where it felt comfortable for everyone.

"Que queremos?" he called out.

"Justicia," came the response now, louder and louder.

"What do we want?"

"Justice."

It is the ancient chant of all American street politics, where those who feel cheated by the system strike back by marching, by venting their anger and taking courage in the voices echoing around them, and by hoping to rouse the conscience of the larger community.

But this time, the chant was bilingual because language is a piece of the equation. Dorian Martin, former city policeman, former abuser of his badge, assumed his three Hispanic accusers last December would be too frightened to speak out and too intimidated by the language gap to file complaints accusing Martin of robbing them in three separate incidents.

He was wrong. The system worked for a while, so slowly at first that some in the Hispanic community assumed the fix had been put in, that police were covering up Martin's crime. In fact, police were infuriated. They were infuriated on the record and off, by individual and by group. They were angry that one of their own abused his power and implicitly targeted the whole department as conspirators, and they were furious that he'd driven a wedge between street cops and a Hispanic community with whom they'd been trying hard to establish healthy relationships.

But then, having worked diligently to put Martin on trial, having calmed fears about a fix, came the news leading to yesterday's demonstration: last week's report that Martin was allowed to cop a plea that would spare him prison time, and that two of the cases were being dropped at sentencing next month if Martin pays those accusers $600 restitution.

"An injustice to the victims," said Angelo Solera, vice chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs. "Every time, they work out a deal. How many times are they going to do this? At some point, you say, `Enough is enough, this is a slap in the face.'

"The Latino community has no political power, so we came here to raise people's consciousness. You have to do something like this to let people know that it's wrong, and it shouldn't happen."

Of this, Solera is absolutely right, and all anger is justified. The preliminary deal with Martin would give him a three-year suspended sentence, three years of probation, and a mere four months of home detention. Big deal. Having abused his badge, having taken advantage of those he imagined too frightened to fight back, he deserves the book thrown at him.

But this, too, is part of the American system: It infuriates everybody. Especially in the big cities, where the street crime is heavy and the courts face backlogs of all kinds, it angers everybody it touches, victims and cops and lawyers and judges.

In the familiar parlance, it is "Let's make a deal" justice, in which compromises are made to move the system along. These keep the courts moving but sometimes kill the very spirit of justice.

Here is just one random example from the Circuit Court of Baltimore where Dorian Martin was supposed to meet his justice: There were 1,161 cases scheduled for trial last May. Of those, 822 were plea bargained away. Of those remaining, 271 others were discarded for reasons sometimes related to justice and sometimes not: lack of evidence, lack of witnesses, lack of desire to prosecute because of too many other, more important cases.

Of the original 1,161 cases, 68 came to actual trial.

In the case of Dorian Martin, prosecutors knew they had additional problems. It was the accusers' word against the word of a policeman, one on one. In such matters, the policeman is generally seen as the voice of authority. Also, some of the accusers' words were in Spanish. In either case, it could hinder prosecution.

Does it make Martin's plea bargain a work of pride? Absolutely not, and this brings us to yesterday's protest. Some said prosecutors should have asked for the accusers' input before plea bargaining. Others mentioned the history of police persecution in Latin American countries, which victims imagined they had put behind them.

"These are people from places where you cannot complain about the police or you wind up dead and your family hurt," said Beltran Navarro, former chairman of the Mayor's Committee for Hispanic Affairs. "We understand that it's not the whole police department here. It's the system. But they take advantage of the fact that we are immigrants, and assume they can abuse us."

He is right about the abuse, of course. But here is one more fact about life in American cities: The system infuriates everyone, in its democratic way.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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