Homicide unit gets stinging critique

Report to Daniel links internal failings, poor crime clearance rate

March 17, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A confidential study of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit, whose detectives make arrests in less than half the city's slayings, blames the failings on poor supervision and antipathy between detectives and prosecutors.

The stinging analysis lists a variety of internal problems that include rotating out experienced investigators, substandard equipment and inadequate staffing of crucial support personnel, such as laboratory technicians and clerks.

From broken tape recorders to case folders that are in "abysmal condition -- that is, when they can be located," the report portrays a dysfunctional unit whose detectives are responsible for investigating the most serious of offenses.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel declined to comment on the study, which was obtained by The Sun.

The report, requested by Daniel, also for the first time acknowledges that the relationship between police and the city state's attorney's office has deteriorated to a dangerous level.

Former homicide Lt. Stephen B. Tabeling, who conducted the study and wrote the report, said there is "an apparent mutual lack of confidence and a serious divisive deficiency in teamwork" between the two offices, which has compromised cases.

The report offers further evidence that problems hampering the city's criminal justice system -- such as trial delays and failure of prosecutors to turn over evidence to defense lawyers -- are not limited to the courthouse.

On Wednesday, three men in a murder case that had become symbolic of those failures walked free after being acquitted by a jury.

Their cases had been dismissed once because of trial delays, but a higher court overturned the decision and prosecutors retried three of the four defendants over the past 10 days.

But by then a key witness had been killed, another recanted and a third disappeared.

During the lengthy delays, a homicide detective mistakenly approved the destruction of bullets, shell casings, blood-stained clothing and a taped statement from one of the defendants.

The detective also mischaracterized evidence about the case to the grand jury that indicted the suspects, which the judge characterized as "ineptitude."

Cost in convictions

The Sun has documented several instances in which the fractured relationship between detectives and prosecutors has cost convictions and prompted stern admonishments from judges.

In a 1998 case, now-retired Circuit Judge Mabel H. Hubbard threw out charges against Eric Funderburk, who was accused of shooting two people, because the prosecutor failed to hand state evidence to the defense lawyer.

Assistant State's Attorney Sharon Ruth Holback put the blame on a police detective who kept his notes from her.

She labeled his actions misconduct, but it cost her the case.

"I suspect that you should be about chastising your police," Hubbard told Holback. "You cannot prosecute a case properly unless you get the proper information from your so-called investigators, namely, the police."

Tabeling concluded in his report that a "lack of successful prosecution compounds the impression that the criminal justice system is impotent. Inadequate courtroom performance effectively negates and undermines the administration of justice, and is a serious detriment to an acceptable quality of life for city residents."

A widespread problem

John H. Lewin Jr., chairman of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which is steering reforms of the justice system, said poor communication between prosecutors and detectives is a widespread problem.

He gave several reasons, including a system so overwhelmed that there is no time for anyone to talk and detectives who are under the mistaken notion that a case is over once an arrest is made.

Lewin said that city officials failed to recognize the "enormous influx of drug-related crime, and we didn't have the system in place to deal with it. Up to now, we've been responding to crises. That's no way to run an institution."

Much of Tabeling's nine-page report, which was completed in January, raises issues already made public by police officials who are revamping virtually every aspect of the 3,200-member force.

Decline in arrest rates

Baltimore has had more than 300 homicides every year for a decade, giving the city the nation's fourth-highest per-capita murder rate.

Police once made arrests in more than 70 percent of killings and boasted an equally high success rate in court.

But the arrest rate has sunk to below 40 percent over the years. The arrest rate for nonfatal shootings is even lower -- 20 percent.

Department officials said yesterday that arrest-rate figures for the past several years were not immediately available.

Daniel's new administration has put much of the blame on the former commissioner's policy of rotating detectives out of their jobs every three years.

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