Prosecutor's excuses are not an explanation

Cop-out: State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy needs to offer plan to remedy her office's problems.

July 16, 1999

IS that it?

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy learns that her prosecutors sometimes trample the Constitution to get convictions, and the most she can muster is a list of excuses for their behavior -- rather than explanations and a remedy plan?

That's not good enough, not by a long shot. And no one ought to accept the idea that Ms. Jessamy's response, printed Wednesday in a letter to the Sun, is sufficient to be the final word on this issue.

Ms. Jessamy's letter came in response to two Sun stories that detailed cases involving eight defendants since 1995 in which prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense all of the evidence they had.

These weren't minor procedural gaffes; they were serious breaches of constitutional protections. Verdicts against the eight defendants were overturned by judges and several of the prosecutors were reprimanded in open court.

Ms. Jessamy's response didn't suggest that she understands the seriousness of what happened. Instead, it was a bizarre oscillation between assertions of Ms. Jessamy's integrity and pleas for more money and support staff for her under-funded office -- neither of which directly addresses the real problem.

Ms. Jessamy didn't elaborate on how or why the disclosure problem exists. She said nothing about conducting an internal review of the eight cases -- or others -- to determine if action should be taken against the prosecutors involved. And she mentions no plans to ensure that the evidentiary disclosure problem won't happen again.

Even worse were Ms. Jessamy's attempts to justify the eight cases her office botched since 1995. She said her prosecutors handled some 33,000 other criminal cases during the same time period, making the eight an "exception and not the rule."

Why should that reassure anyone? Getting a fair trial in Baltimore shouldn't be like playing roulette, hoping your number will hit. If any of the eight mishaps documented by the Sun had occurred in death penalty cases, would Ms. Jessamy have offered the same rationale?

"Oops" just doesn't cut it when the credibility of the justice system, and people's lives, are at stake.

Certainly, the families of those wrongly jailed and the Baltimoreans who saw criminals walk free in their neighborhoods because of prosecutor errors deserve more of an explanation. So does the state legislature, which will conduct its own inquiry in August and has the right under the state constitution to remove a state's attorney for willful neglect or incompetence.

Ms. Jessamy should offer better, more detailed explanations sooner rather than later.

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