True justice demands a review of Austin case

High stakes: State's Attorney Jessamy can help to right a wrong and restore public's faith in system.

March 21, 2001

IF JUSTICE matters at all in Baltimore, the case of Michael Austin will be reviewed with the blessing of Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Virtually every piece of evidence used to send Mr. Austin to jail 26 years ago has been discredited.

As pointed out in Sun reporter Todd Richissin's article Sunday, one of Ms. Jessamy's predecessors allegedly withheld information from Mr. Austin's lawyer, pressured a witness to falsely identify him and ignored discoveries that proved his innocence.

Mr. Austin was subsequently convicted of murdering a convenience store security guard and sentenced to life in prison.

Apparently content to have the wrong man in jail until now, the system now faces a public test of its commitment to decency and fairness.

Ms. Jessamy promises a decision about whether to oppose the review after Mr. Austin's lawyer files papers with the court.

Once that is done, she should make it clear she welcomes the inquiry.

The integrity of an entire system depends on her approval. If she withholds it, she will be saying that convictions -- not justice -- matter in the criminal justice system of Baltimore.

Too many people already believe that's true. Their lack of confidence arises from mishandled prosecutions such as the one that -- intentionally or incompetently -- put Michael Austin in jail more than a quarter-century ago.

Ms. Jessamy, therefore, finds herself with a rare opportunity. She can be an agent of change. She can allow the light to shine on poor legal practices that callously disregard the most fundamental demand for professional and honest prosecution.

One of her predecessor, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, urges her to support Mr. Austin's petition.

If justice matters to her, she will.

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