Case proves justice system works despite its problems

November 09, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FROM A fifth-floor courthouse corridor yesterday afternoon, you could hear Dorian Martin's jury hollering at each other pretty good. Came one voice, and then another, and usually three or four at a time, and the voices could be heard bouncing along the marble hallway. And, at the end of two hours, when the noise died and all emotions were spent, this jury emerged with what felt like a compromise.

Martin, the Southeastern District city cop charged with taking about $300 from a Spanish-speaking immigrant named Felix Guevara, was thus found not guilty of robbery but was nailed on the lesser charges of theft under $300 and misconduct in office.

And, in a case involving not only scrutiny of police but the sensitivities of ethnic minorities and their fair share of the justice system, a signal was sent: This is the United States of America, not Latin America. This is not El Salvador where the cops make people disappear; it is the city of Baltimore, where even the police must face the music.

When it was done, neither side exactly gloated. There was shoving in a courthouse hallway, and angry words were snarled, and Dorian Martin had to be restrained by a woman. And on Calvert Street outside a few minutes later, there was more pushing, and threats of unleashed testosterone.

"The police robbed me," Felix Guevara said through an interpreter, as he stood outside the courthouse. "Justice has not been done. I'm not happy, because that officer is free. He can meet me on the street and hurt me."

As he said this, Martin emerged through the courthouse doors, surrounded by family. He said he hadn't taken Guevara's money with intent to keep it, he'd only made a mistake in judgment. Nearly a year after the incident, December of 1998 to the present moment, it was nice to see him finally settling on a story.

When initially questioned about Guevara's missing money -- and the fact that Martin wound up that night with those precise bills in his pants pocket -- he'd denied ever seeing Guevara. The money, he claimed, was for his children. And the similarity in bills? -- a $100 bill and seven $20 bills, plus smaller currency the same as Guevara's missing money -- pure coincidence, he implied.

Martin said he'd been to a 7-Eleven that evening, and gotten change. It wasn't for another few weeks that he changed that story, in front of TV cameras, and acknowledged that, yes, it was Guevara's money. But Martin said he'd only taken it in a moment of anger and driven away with it. He said he'd gone back later and unsuccessfully attempted to give it back to him. But he couldn't find Guevara, he said.

Standing outside the courthouse when trial was over yesterday, Martin didn't go into such details. He simply said he hadn't taken the money with intent to keep it. An error in judgment, he called it. Then, from a little crowd that had formed around him, a voice shouted that he'd been shoved by someone in Martin's family. And so more shoving commenced.

Here was a spilling out -- not only of several days' courtroom testimony, but of a year in which Martin has faced these charges and Baltimore's Hispanic community has declared this a test case, and waited to see if its legal entitlements are the same as everyone else's.

"This is a victory, because there is a sense of justice," Angelo Solera said when it was over. He is vice chairman of the mayor's committee on Hispanic Affairs, and he sat through almost every moment of the trial.

"We won, because the case got to court," he said. "That's all anyone can ask. We got justice. The judge was very fair, the state's attorney did her job. The system works. If it didn't, we would have this cop out there still robbing people instead of awaiting sentencing.

"In [Guevara's] country, there's no way in hell this case would have come to trial. This man Martin is no longer a police officer, he's a convicted criminal now. He was not treated better just because he's a policeman, and so the system works."

Deva Dwarka, president of Latinos for Progress, agreed.

"In Latin America," he said, "people fear the police. There are no human rights. Here, there is justice for everybody. That is the message. This policeman knew about Latino fears of police, and he took advantage. Now there has been a fair trial, and the community will be happy."

So the case became a kind of microcosm of the city's justice system. It is frustrating, and it causes bad feelings, but it exists within a process. Sometimes there is compromise. And, at the end of the day, no one gets a break based on position, or race or ethnic persuasion.

And, for all its flaws, that's a decent system in any language.

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