Restoring Order

Judge David Mitchell's resolve inspires confidence in his attempts at city court reform.

April 08, 2001|By Caitlin Francke

IT'S a Shakespearean moment when Judge David B. Mitchell takes the bench. His black robe blends with the dark leather of his elevated chair, making it seem as if he is sitting on a custom-made throne.

Clerks and lawyers hover in front of the bench as he considers requests for trial delays. At times, the light above the bench hits the metal rim of his glasses, sending a flash into the courtroom. When he scolds errant lawyers, it looks like lightning.

"You don't get it, do you?" Mitchell boomed recently at a prosecutor who had failed to disclose evidence in a high-profile multiple-victim murder case. That mistake forced the judge to grant a delay in the trial.

"This is not yesterday's simple homicide," he growled in the hushed courtroom. "I've been put in this position. I don't like it, and I think it stinks."

As chief of the criminal docket for the city's Circuit Court, Mitchell has spearheaded reform of the beleaguered system -- which gained national notoriety -- over the past two years. When he took over, trials were being delayed so long that defendants charged with violent crimes were being set free. Prosecutors weren't turning over evidence promptly, causing more delays, a wrongful first-degree murder conviction and more defendants set free.

Whether on his throne in postponement court, or at the head of the table for the oversight committee steering changes in the system, or pecking away at his computer in his chambers, he has worked to wrestle the chaotic docket to the ground.

It has not been a pretty fight. But Mitchell, 55, has kept swinging.

"He's been one of the redeeming factors throughout this process," says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of a powerful budget committee who threatened to withhold millions of dollars in funding because of courthouse chaos. "He's been focused. He's been passionate. He's been pragmatic."

Perhaps most important, Mitchell's unflinching and determined manner has reassured jittery lawmakers and a skeptical public, convincing them that he is hell-bent on turning the system around.

"You believe him and you share his confidence," Rawlings says.

It is not the first time Mitchell has tried to overhaul a broken justice system. But it's been the most public and the most grueling for the former chief of the juvenile docket who spent 10 years working to fix that division.

It began in January 1999, just days after he took over the post as the judge who oversees all criminal cases. Four defendants had murder charges against them dismissed by a judge because their trial had been delayed too long -- prompting public outcry. Subsequent articles in The Sun showed that foul-ups by judges and prosecutors resulted in the release of others charged with violent crimes.

Mitchell went right to work. He created an oversight committee called the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council -- which comprises the prosecutor's office, the public defender's office, the mayor, the attorney general and the U.S. attorney, among others -- to reform the system. He all but eliminated trial delays, called in retired judges to preside over cases and put lawyers in so many back-to-back trials that everyone in the courthouse seemed pie-eyed with exhaustion.

He pored over data showing how long people had been sitting in jail awaiting trial -- which had previously been ignored -- and scheduled trials as quickly as possible. He wanted to get a handle on how far the system had sunk because it was already so much worse than he ever thought.

"I knew we had difficulties in maintaining our dockets. I didn't realize we had gotten to the point where cases had been postponed 15 and 20 and 25 times," Mitchell recounted. "I think administratively we just lost control."

He appeared on ABC's World News Tonight as Baltimore's court crisis gained national attention.

Meanwhile, alarmed legislators, including Rawlings, repeatedly demanded that Mitchell and other court officials appear before them and document their progress or millions of dollars in funding would be withheld. Mitchell spent nights on his home computer making chart after chart and then running to Kinko's at 2 a.m. to have them printed on wallboard.

Often, Mitchell said, his presentations were met with skepticism -- or were flatly rejected. At a legislative hearing about the court crisis in February 2000, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley blindsided the judges and left them feeling betrayed. After Mitchell detailed steps taken to improve the system, O'Malley said he wanted "to throw up."

"It was incredible," Mitchell recalls. "At the time that you are trying to make things happen ... people just didn't believe that you were going to be able to take hold of the system, that you were going to make those changes, that your changes would be permanent. It was extremely difficult because you felt you were functioning and no one was listening."

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