Many causes for court failures

Discovery problems, delays, understaffing seen as key concerns

August 16, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy went before a powerful judicial panel in Annapolis last week, she tried to persuade the legislators that her office strictly follows the law requiring prosecutors to disclose evidence to criminal defendants.

Any problems, she suggested, including a wrongful first-degree murder conviction and the dismissals of serious criminal cases, are isolated episodes, not part of a pattern at the state's attorney's office.

The wrongful conviction and the dismissals amounted to a "tiny problem," she said.

Still, she told the lawmakers, one mistake is too many. "When people's lives, reputations and freedom are at stake, there is no margin for error," Jessamy said. "And yet, errors do occur."

Over the next hour, three witnesses testified that Jessamy was mistaken, if not flat-out wrong.

They said there was a serious problem with the disclosure of evidence, known as "discovery," and one of the witnesses offered fresh examples to illustrate the point.

The only question remaining was who is to blame -- prosecutors, police officers or judges, who for decades have tolerated what one witness called a deception game of "hide the ball" from defendants and their attorneys.

According to the testimony by the head of a justice council and two senior public defenders:

Evidence problems have troubled the city courthouse for years, and judges have not held prosecutors' "feet to the fire," one of the public defenders said, to ensure they comply with the law, which requires that prosecutors disclose evidence within 25 days of a suspect's arraignment.

Evidence is not disclosed, in part, because the state's attorney's office is understaffed, crippling the ability of prosecutors to meet tight deadlines.

Police officers are failing to provide evidence to prosecutors.

No system exists to notify prosecutors when they are about to miss deadlines, and there is no way to determine how many cases run afoul of the law because evidence was not turned over on time.

An analysis of Baltimore's courts paid for by the U.S. Justice Department found that discovery violations are a serious issue facing court administrators, and they have not taken meaningful steps to address the problem.

At the hearing, the chairman of the House public safety subcommittee that controls the finances of the state's criminal justice agencies asked Jessamy to address discovery problems in Baltimore.

"Is there a systemwide problem?" asked Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat.

She paused.

A committee is "dealing with issues of discovery," she said.

Lawmakers seek reforms

Jessamy had been summoned to appear before the panel after The Sun published a two-part series July 11 and 12 that reported that a man was wrongfully convicted of murder after evidence showing others may have committed the crime was kept secret from his defense lawyer. The paper also reported that charges against at least seven other defendants have been dismissed in the past two years because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence.

State lawmakers are threatening to withhold $17.8 million from criminal justice agencies unless reforms are made to Baltimore's antiquated system. The calls for reforms came in response to articles in The Sun that examined breakdowns at the courthouse that resulted in trial delays, overcrowded jails and dismissals of criminal cases.

After Jessamy, the next witness was John H. Lewin Jr., executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council was formed to study problems at the courthouse and develop solutions by an October deadline set by state lawmakers.

Lewin testified that "there has been a culture that has not taken discovery obligations seriously" in Baltimore, and the failure to provide evidence under state and federal law contributes to delays at the courthouse.

"Up until now, there has not been a mechanism designed to focus on discovery issues," Lewin told the lawmakers. "In too many instances, discovery disputes are still festering when cases are called to trial."

He said council members have examined three months' worth of cases and found that evidence delays are responsible for at least 10 percent of trial postponements. Franchot wondered whether the violations might be causing more problems at the courthouse.

"It may be an underlying irritant to the whole system," the lawmaker noted.

"I agree," Lewin said.

`Clearly understaffed'

Another problem contributing to discovery violations, Lewin said, is the size of the state's attorney's office. Jessamy testified that she had 170 prosecutors and nine investigators to handle 86,000 cases last year.

By comparison, Philadelphia had 275 prosecutors and 100 investigators to handle 72,000 cases, she said.

"I do think the state's attorney's office is clearly understaffed, and that accounts for part of this problem," Lewin said.

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