Jessamy defends office, disclosure of evidence

Her letter says cases in Sun series were `exception, not rule'

July 14, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy broke her public silence and defended her office yesterday, saying that her prosecutors perform their work professionally despite having insufficient support staff.

In the past seven weeks, Jessamy refused numerous requests by The Sun for an interview about evidence problems that have led to a wrongful conviction, trial delays and freedom for criminal suspects.

But yesterday, The Sun received a letter to the editor from Jessamy, published in today's editions. Jessamy did not respond to a phone call or a hand-delivered letter yesterday requesting an interview.

In her letter, Jessamy said that the cases against eight defendants cited in a two-part series in The Sun this week "are the exception and not the rule."

"It has always been and continues to be the policy of the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office to afford full disclosure of all evidence in criminal prosecutions to the defense," she wrote, noting that every prosecutor in her office knows this policy exists and must be followed consistently.

"Any intentional or malicious failures will be dealt with expeditiously," she said.

She wrote that the prosecutors in her office did not have enough law clerks, paralegals or investigators to help them handle the cases against more than 8,600 felony defendants last year. Despite the short staff, she said, her office's conviction rate is 88 percent.

Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck said yesterday that the city's 170 prosecutors have a total of seven law clerks or paralegals, nine investigators and five victim-witness experts to assist them. He said he needs to triple the support staff, at a cost of $2.1 million.

Additional staff could assist in the process of disclosing evidence -- known as discovery -- by performing administrative tasks such as tracking down reports and photo-copying documents, easing the burden on time-strapped prosecutors, Kodeck said.

Unlike many prosecutors, Jessamy wrote, "attorneys in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office do not enjoy the luxury of sufficient [staff] to assist in case preparation."

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 articles reported that the cases were part of a pattern in Baltimore, citing interviews with judges, defense lawyers and prosecutors; and a recent study funded by the Justice Department, which concluded that discovery problems were among the most serious facing administrators.

The series prompted politicians, lawmakers and legal experts to call for reforms to ensure that defendants receive fair trials and that the public is protected from criminal suspects.

Del. Peter Franchot, chairman of an influential public safety subcommittee in Annapolis, has threatened to withhold $500,000 requested by Jessamy for technology improvements unless the evidence problems are solved.

Another representative of the state's attorney's office also responded to the articles. Page Croyder, chief of the unit at the city jail, wrote in a letter to the editor that The Sun failed to document a pattern of problems with the exchange of evidence.

But in addition to The Sun's findings, the federally funded study pointed to the pattern of evidence problems.

"Representatives of the judiciary, the defense and the prosecution agree that discovery is exchanged in a piecemeal fashion," the 1998 study said. "All parties agree that the absence of a clear, consistently followed protocol in this area creates a substantial impediment to the early and fair resolution of criminal matters."

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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