Jessamy takes the easy way out

Austin case: Prosecutor refuses to grab at chance to prove justice matters above all.

April 14, 2001

AT FIRST blush, it's easy to empathize with Patricia C. Jessamy.

Everyone is out for the Baltimore state's attorney's head. The mayor thinks she's lazy. The press (including this page) characterizes her office as ineptly run. And state lawmakers have been asking tough questions about whether her prosecutors break the rules to get convictions.

So why would she want to encourage the re-examination of Michael Austin's quarter-century-old murder case, which raises similar issues?

That could open the floodgates, giving tidal momentum to those who believe the system was and is faulty. It could make her life tougher. And she doesn't need that.

Better to close ranks. Stand by the system. But Michael Austin's predicament isn't about Ms. Jessamy. Or her prosecutors. Or the integrity of that office.

It's about a guy who many say did not commit the 1974 murder that landed him in jail. It's about justice -- something that should concern a prosecutor more than anything else.

In that light, the empathy for Ms. Jessamy dissipates and is quickly replaced with frustration and rage.

Her office -- which this week recommended against a re-examination of the case -- overlooked what has been made obvious by so many others. Her prosecutors used a string of legal technicalities to obscure the fundamental issue: whether Austin is guilty or innocent.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke -- a former Baltimore state's attorney -- backs Austin's quest for a new hearing. So does William A. Swisher, who was city state's attorney at the time Austin was convicted.

New Jersey-based Centurion Ministries, which has worked to free Austin, has pointed out in great detail how flimsy the evidence was in the case: a drug-dealing witness and physical evidence that probably didn't relate to the crime.

Ms. Jessamy's office blamed Austin's attorneys for being lax. Her prosecutors talked a lot about procedure and process, but skirted the facts of the case that give rise to the growing doubt about his guilt.

That's not the role they ought to be playing in this process.

Ms. Jessamy and her prosecutors ought to be taking a moral stand, one way or the other, about what happened to Austin.

If they believe he's guilty, they ought to say so and back it up with evidence. If they believe there's a chance that he's innocent, they ought to muster the courage to admit it -- regardless of the consequences to the state's attorney or her office.

A judge could still order the case reopened, and Austin could someday regain his freedom. But Ms. Jessamy won't be able to claim any sort of moral high ground on this issue until she takes a credible stand.

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