Prosecutor takes over juvenile division

`Our first responsibility is accountability,' Keith Cave asserts

July 21, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

While growing up in the District of Columbia, Keith Cave had few professional role models, with the exception of an idealistic defense attorney on the television show "Perry Mason."

That hero and his courtroom theatrics turned Cave on to law -- but not as a defense attorney.

Instead, he became a prosecutor, the nemesis of Mason, and was promoted this month to head the juvenile unit for the Howard County state's attorney's office.

"Some people said that would sound corny, about Perry Mason," said Cave, 31. "But I didn't have any role models who were lawyers. That's where I learned about the law."

Juvenile prosecution is nothing new to Cave, who handled dozens of juvenile cases during his four years as a prosecutor.

As the head of the juvenile unit, Cave supervises two part-time prosecutors and a three-person support staff, reviews cases for prosecution, makes decisions on charges and handles the administrative side of office.

Former supervisor Cindy L. Johnson is taking a part-time position in the prosecutor's office to spend more time with her family.

"It's a lot more work than you think," Johnson said. "Whatever you think it will be, double it. You can't just prosecute a case. You have to look at what could happen after" the juvenile is punished.

Last year, Howard County prosecutors handled 583 juvenile cases, ranging from burglaries and assaults to robberies and theft. The cases usually are heard in closed hearings before a master, a judicial officer appointed by Howard County Circuit Court judges to hear juvenile proceedings and other matters.

"Our first responsibility to the public is juvenile accountability," Cave said. "We're not here to hold juveniles' hands."

State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon says she is excited about the change, and that Cave will be tackling one of the office's most important jobs.

"This is our opportunity to intervene and turn things around," McLendon said. "You don't turn around many people at the age of 22."

But that intervention doesn't appear to be fairly meted out statewide, according to statistics prepared by Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice officials and recently reported in The Sun.

Those figures showed that white offenders seemed more likely than black offenders to receive treatment, and that blacks were more likely to be sentenced to jail.

Statewide last year, 120 white juveniles were sentenced to treatment in the state's residential centers and 223 white juveniles were jailed. During the same period, 132 black juveniles received treatment -- but 672 were locked away with no treatment.

Cave says he is familiar with the statistics and will prosecute cases based on the crime -- not the defendant's race. Cave, who is black, says he understands adversity.

Born and raised in Washington, he is the son of a single mother who worked in the federal government. He attended a Catholic elementary school and was encouraged by his principal to attend Gonzaga College High School, a prestigious Jesuit preparatory school in downtown Washington.

"Attending Gonzaga, the great white high school, was not something that people from my elementary school did," Cave said.

From there, Cave attended St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, but he didn't relish the experience. Unlike Gonzaga, the university didn't reach out to blacks, he said.

He then spent nine months as a sales representative for Quaker Oats in the Richmond, Va., area, said Cave, who soon began applying to law schools.

In 1993, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and began working for a general practice attorney in Baltimore. After handling a few criminal defense cases, Cave said he wanted to become a prosecutor.

During one trial, his client -- accused of beating his girlfriend -- showed up high on drugs. The girlfriend also showed up high. "I was absolutely terrified," Cave said. "My defendant was chewing wads of gum to mask the odor."

The charges were dropped. Despite the courtroom victory, Cave remembers feeling sympathy for the prosecutor and a distaste for criminal defense work.

"Everyone was against" the prosecutor, said Cave, who became a District Court prosecutor in the Howard County state's attorney's office in 1995.

On his first criminal docket, Cave had a trial and lost. "It was great," he said. "Losing didn't matter. I thought I did a pretty good job even though I lost."

In 1997, Cave was promoted to Circuit Court.

He hopes to eliminate the rotation of prosecutors through the juvenile dockets. Instead, Cave and his two part-time prosecutors will handle the cases to keep more continuity throughout the entire process -- from charging through probation violation hearings.

"Knowing that the person at the other table knows all about them has to be important," Cave said.

Cave and his wife, a teacher and writer, have a 1-year-old son.

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