As terrorism alters nation, grim life on streets goes on

November 15, 2001|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME is McCullough, and she stood there Tuesday morning in Southwestern District Court, looking as splendid as she could under the circumstances. She wore a pinstriped outfit and fiddled with a ring on her finger. She had her hair done up in elaborate braids and wore glasses to give herself a serious look. And she said nothing at all about the unfortunate business of Oct. 9, when she reached through a basement window on Hilton Street at 2:45 in the morning.

She is 34 years old and should know better. She has three children, the oldest of whom is 11, and they all live at McCullough's mother's house for a roof over their heads.

"Do you work?" she was asked now.

"Used to," she said. "Nursing assistant."

Behind a nearby locked door, you heard the sound of clanging metal in the courthouse lockup, the barking of an officer's orders, the reluctant grunts of a prisoner.

"This cocaine she's been using," Judge Jack Lesser said now. "Powder or crack?"

"Crack," he was told.

"And how long?"

"Ten years."

The noise from the lockup was a little louder now, as they moved a guy in a sweat suit, named Paylor, out of his cell and into a seat in the courtroom. Paylor, dressed formally for the occasion, wore a sweat suit and leg irons. He had stringy blond hair and a beard. He was one of 51 cases listed on the morning docket, including the woman named McCullough, who stood there now and waited for Judge Lesser's decision.

She'd agreed to a statement of facts: Yes, she was down there on Hilton Street at quarter till three in the morning to buy crack cocaine; and, yes, she'd been caught handing money through a basement window to a hand reaching back with the crack; and, yes, she understood that if the judge was good enough to grant probation that she had better not get into trouble again.

McCullough nodded her head. The judge said 18 months' probation and 15 hours of community service. The man named Paylor, in the sweat suit, stepped forward, one of the day's 51 cases, and life as usual continued in the district courts of Baltimore.

It is two months since the world changed with the terrorist attacks, but nothing changes in the places where street crime comes to pay its dues. Airplanes fly into buildings, great cities are brought to their knees, anthrax powder in envelopes chills the nation's capital. The nation rallies itself, waves the flag, sings patriotic songs in ballparks, reminds itself of its greatness. But the life of street corners, and human beings on the edge, goes unchanged.

"No slack at all," said Officer Cynthia McCrea, sitting in her office at the Edward F. Borgerding Courthouse on Wabash Avenue two days ago. She is a liaison between the district courts and the police. There are several district courtrooms at the Borgerding building, plus traffic courts.

There were, besides Southwestern's 51 cases to be heard on this routine morning, 77 cases in the Western District court and 56 in the Northwestern District. Not to mention 148 major traffic cases and 82 minor traffic cases. Over the course of a year, it was estimated, perhaps 50,000 cases of street crime come through this building.

"Since Sept. 11?" said Sgt. Albert Taylor, who shares the office with McCrea. "Nothing's changed. You think human nature's going to change? This is something that's been there since the beginning of time. Crime is here to stay. We're fighting a losing battle, but it's a battle we have to fight. Depressing, huh? And 70 percent of it's drugs."

Sure enough, here was the defendant Paylor, in his sweat suit, standing in Southwestern District Court, listening to charges that he'd tried to hustle 15 gel caps of heroin. Paylor, already on probation for drug possession, wondered about a plea bargain. The sound of metal banging in the courthouse lockup could be heard again, another inmate being shifted into position for trial.

"How much jail time will he accept?" Judge Lesser asked now.

"He'd like none," Lesser was told.

"Well, that's not going to happen in this court today," the judge said.

Paylor asked for a jury trial; Lesser granted it. Attorneys on both sides said, "Thank you." Paylor rolled his eyes. "Thank you," he said mockingly. The judge missed the sarcasm. He had other things on his mind, dozens more cases on his docket, all reflections of a city trying to keep its composure while a nation deals with threats from a distant land, and diverts big money to that effort, and wonders how to afford sufficient police presence in its dangerous neighborhoods.

"Robert Smith," an assistant state's attorney said now, bringing out the next defendant.

"Robert?" said Judge Lesser, glancing at court papers. "I have Kevin. You've used Kevin?"

"Yeah," said Smith. "I've used that."

He was allegedly found in the 2000 block of Hollins St., 9:30 at night, dealing vials of an illegal substance to a couple of customers. The neighborhood is full of such transactions, as is the city. A war is conducted on the other side of the planet, threatening civilization itself. We were expecting things would change just because of that?

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