Two Baltimore circuit judges appointed to handle disputes over evidence exchange

Duties begin mid-month, in wake of problems

October 05, 1999|By Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham | Caitlin Francke and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Two Baltimore circuit judges will begin resolving evidence disputes in criminal cases this month in a move that could improve the quality of justice in the city and ensure that the constitutional rights of criminal defendants are protected.

Judge John N. Prevas and Judge William D. Quarles were publicly appointed yesterday to handle disputes over the exchange of evidence, a process known as discovery. Prevas, while maintaining his caseload, will be the primary judge. Quarles will assist him when necessary.

The judges will begin their new roles Oct. 18.

"The [discovery] rules will be followed," said Judge David B. Mitchell, chief of the city's criminal docket. "This is a continuing effort to manage the caseload and ensure that cases move smoothly through the court system."

Prosecutors are required to turn over evidence to defendants within 25 days of arraignment, especially if the material helps the defense. They must also disclose other evidence as it is developed. In return, defense lawyers must give prosecutors material they plan to use at trial.

Problems with disclosing evidence have hobbled the city's courthouse for years. Until now, few meaningful steps were taken to correct them.

In July, The Sun reported that discovery problems in the past two years have undercut the constitutional rights of defendants while prompting dismissals of serious criminal cases. The failure to disclose evidence led to trial delays, a wrongful first-degree murder conviction and dismissals of charges that including attempted murder. The paper reported that prosecutors and police were slow to turn over documents, and in some cases, they did not turn over evidence at all.

After the articles ran, prosecutors and judges were initially reluctant to acknowledge problems with the disclosure of evidence. But a plan submitted by Baltimore court officials to state legislators last week stated otherwise.

"No trial can proceed efficiently or fairly if either the prosecution or the defense does not have complete information as to the facts and circumstances surrounding each criminal incident," the court officials wrote. "In Baltimore City, there have been indications that discovery materials are often not produced in a timely manner, thus creating unnecessary trial delay."

According to Mitchell, the new discovery system will generally work like this: If a lawyer asks a judge to compel the other side to turn over evidence, the clerk's office will notify the discovery judge of a possible dispute. The judge will decide whether the dispute is serious enough to hold a hearing.

"As these matters are presented," Mitchell said, "the judge will address them."

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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