A silence that kills

Action: Time for Baltimore residents to speak up about travesties in criminal justice.

Getting away with MURDER

March 19, 2000

Keep quiet about the 4,000 recidivists who run city streets, committing crimes with increasing bravado and little fear of punishment. Keep quiet when probable murderers slap hands and embrace in court after they walk free.

Say nothing about a police department that can't solve more than half the 300 city murders each year. Or homicide detectives who trash important evidence before trials. Or prosecutors and judges who can't or won't stop the delays that so often set criminals free.

Keep quiet, Baltimore, because you've got other things to think about. Like the upcoming baseball season. Or which weekends you'll spend in Ocean City this summer.

Keep quiet if you will, but know that your silence and your lack of outrage over the pathetic state of this city's criminal justice system make you an accomplice to the mayhem. Your silence kills.

These are your courts. They're your cops. They're your judges and your prosecutors. Until you stand up, tell them you've had enough and demand a system that works for citizens instead of criminals, the nonsense will continue.

Thugs will walk the streets undeterred -- maybe in your neighborhood. They'll rob and rape and kill -- maybe they'll do it to people you know. And the slow rot that's eating at this city's core will become a ravenous decay, leaving no neighborhood untouched, no life unscarred.

How much more will it take for the city to raise its collective voice in protest?

When will Baltimoreans shout, like the television anchor in the 1976 movie Network suggested: "We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!"

At The Sun, we're already there. For more than a year, we've been writing (in editorials and news stories) about the continuing violence and how screwed up justice has become in Baltimore. We've pleaded with the governor, the mayor, the state's attorney, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals and others to fix it.

We've advocated changes in the city prosecutor's office, which is overworked and understaffed but also suffers from a lack of direction and an unacceptable level of incompetence.

We've pushed for reform at the city's Central Booking and Intake Center, where the absence of a judge to hear bail reviews has helped to clog the system with frivolous cases.

We've asked city and state officials to shelve their turf squabbles in favor of a unified approach to curbing the city's crime epidemic.

Some of what we've suggested has been enacted: The prosecutor's office will get more attorneys, prosecutors took over charging of criminals from the police department and the police department's rotation policy has ended, among other developments. A Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has been resurrected.

But much more has to be done. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy still offers more excuses than answers or solutions to her office's pitiful performance. Judges who make upwards of $103,000 (some as much as $110,000) a year still roll their eyes at the mere suggestion of weekend or holiday duty at the clogged Central Booking facility. And despite Mayor Martin O'Malley's election on a platform of "zero-tolerance" of criminals, thugs still know that justice is a joke in Baltimore.

Just ask Jay Anderson, William Harrison and Stacey Wilson. That trio walked last week -- for the second time -- on charges they murdered Shawn L. Suggs in 1995.

The case against them seemed promising when it was filed five years ago, but what happened in the intervening time made it easy for the defendants to beat the charges.

Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys delayed the trial 12 times between 1995 and 1999, which violated the defendants' right to speedy justice. So in 1999, a Circuit Court judge threw out the charges.

An appellate court later reinstated the charges and ordered the defendants to stand trial. But by then one key witness was dead and another -- a heroin addict -- had changed her story. Moreover, homicide detectives admitted that they had destroyed key evidence against the defendants. (Just Friday, The Sun released details of a report on the homicide squad suggesting that lost evidence, incomplete case folders and other inexcusable dysfunctions may be the norm.)

Not surprisingly, a jury returned not-guilty verdicts for all three in the Suggs case, and they walked out of court free men. But is that justice? Did the process fairly serve either the defendants or the victim's family?

These kinds of screw-ups should make Baltimore want to scream with anger and frustration. Judges' and prosecutors' phones should ring off the hooks and the mayor should be bombarded with complaints. But do you think that happened? Want to bet that it didn't?

This week's judicial miscarriage was only the latest example of what goes on every day in Baltimore, the most recent in a long line of debacles that allow criminals to do whatever they want and not fear reprisal. But there's still no palpable outrage, no sense that city residents are gut-sick about what's going on.

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