Courthouse `culture' led to delays

Evidence obligations not taken seriously, says oversight chief

Testimony in Annapolis

Jessamy seeks funds, suggests problems are not part of pattern

August 11, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

The coordinator of a council trying to reform Baltimore's courts told a legislative panel yesterday that the failure to disclose evidence to criminal defendants is part of a courthouse "culture" that leads to delays and undermines justice.

"I think, up until now, there has been a culture that has not taken [evidence] obligations seriously," said John H. Lewin Jr., who oversees the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Lewin's comments before a public safety subcommittee in Annapolis came after a presentation by Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who was summoned to explain why evidence problems had led to the dismissals of criminal cases and a wrongful murder conviction.

In her first public statements since The Sun reported that the problems had undercut serious criminal cases handled by her office, Jessamy suggested that the incidents cited by the newspaper were isolated and not part of a pattern.

Her testimony at the House of Delegates was quickly challenged by two senior members of the public defender's office in Baltimore, who said the problem is widespread and offered additional cases to prove their point. In addition, legislators pointed to a federal analysis of the city courts that stated evidence problems are among the most serious issues the courthouse faces.

Jessamy told lawmakers that she needs more money to make sure problems do not continue.

"Mistakes will almost certainly be made in the future," she said. "But our duty is justice. Our goal is perfection. I will continue to strive every day to meet these goals. You must help."

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee, cautioned Jessamy that money may not be the answer. He asked her whether she could determine the extent of the problems in her office when court records routinely fail to note problems with disclosure of evidence or why cases are dismissed.

"How do you know we're dealing with a limited number of cases?" Franchot asked.

Jessamy sidestepped the question, saying a panel set up by the coordinating council is studying ways to improve how evidence is disclosed and that she supported the appointment of a judge to preside over evidence disputes.

The hearing was prompted by a two-part series published by The Sun on July 11 and 12 that reported prosecutors and police were failing to disclose evidence to defense attorneys as required by state law.

The newspaper found that evidence was withheld from a man convicted of first-degree murder and that charges were dismissed against at least seven other defendants during the past two years after judges ruled that the state's attorney's office violated the law on the disclosure of evidence, known as "discovery."

Lewin, the coordinating council official, told the panel yesterday that while there are problems with evidence, Jessamy's office is "clearly understaffed," making it difficult for her prosecutors to comply with the law. He said discussions among council members will produce a plan by October to help solve discovery problems.

The representatives of the public defender's office then testified that prosecutors are slow to produce evidence and routinely withhold documents until cases are about to go before juries. The office represents the majority of criminal defendants in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Julian, acting district public defender for the city, said the practice causes delays because defendants who haven't seen evidence against them are unlikely to accept plea deals early in the process. She also faulted judges for not holding prosecutors' "feet to the fire" because the judges fail to sanction them when they violate the law.

"We don't have a level playing field," Julian told the legislative panel.

Bridget Shepherd, chief of the public defender's felony trial division in Baltimore, told the legislators that discovery problems have long been ingrained in the system. She cited three fresh cases to illustrate her point:

Aubrey Lang was indicted on charges in August 1998 involving the robbery of a convenience store. Over the next nine months, his lawyer, Mario Santos, asked to see the videotape of the store's surveillance camera. When the case went to trial in May, prosecutors provided Santos with the tape. It showed a different man robbing the store. Prosecutors, who said they had difficulty getting the tape from police, dropped the charges against Lang.

Terrance Santangelo was arrested in October 1998 on murder charges. Shepherd, who represented Santangelo, asked prosecutors to tell her who owned the knife found at the crime scene. In April, on the morning of the trial, she said she was given a report produced the month of Santangelo's arrest revealing that the mother of the victim said the knife belonged to her son -- a disclosure that could have helped Shepherd argue self-defense. Santangelo pleaded guilty to assault, received a suspended sentence and was released that day.

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