Jessamy keeps her own counsel in Austin case

This Just In...

January 04, 2002|By Dan Rodricks

UNTIL A certain day in April of last year, Patricia C. Jessamy, the state's attorney of Baltimore, bore neither blame nor minor complicity in the long and wrong incarceration of Michael Austin. Jessamy was but 22 years old, a year out of the University of Mississippi Law School, at the time Austin went to prison, convicted of killing a security guard in a Baltimore convenience store holdup. Jessamy had nothing to do with his prosecution. She had no reason to feel self-conscious or defensive as new evidence indicated that Austin was innocent, the victim of a flawed trial back during the Ford administration.

But something happened, and what that something is remains known only to Patricia Jessamy because yesterday, in the hallowed hall of justice on Calvert Street, she offered no illumination.

Why had she opposed the reopening of Austin's case in April when, by then, the trial prosecutor himself and two former state's attorneys -- one of them a former Baltimore mayor named Kurt Schmoke -- had called for her to do the opposite?

We never got to ask this and other questions because Jessamy refused to take any. She spoke for 86 seconds then walked away. Pat Jessamy keeps her own counsel.

So we don't know what's up with her in the matter of Michael Austin. Some little wires were crossed perhaps, and perhaps some little spark blinded Jessamy to what had become obvious to everyone else who looked closely at this case.

"The first time I read the facts in this one, it was clear to me that some court ought to take another look at this," Schmoke told The Sun in March. "When I read it even more closely, I became convinced that a terrible wrong had been done to this man. This man did not commit that crime."

And then there was William Swisher, who held Jessamy's title at the time Michael Austin was tried. Swisher said he believed the case should be reviewed by a judge and that no one, particularly Jessamy, should stand in the way.

Joe Wase, the man who prosecuted Austin in 1975, went further than his old boss. "I put a man behind bars who I'm now totally convinced is innocent," Wase told The Sun. "I want him out of there." (There being the Maryland House of Correction.)

And then there was the widow. Austin had been convicted of killing Ray Kellam, a security guard at the old Crown Food Market in East Baltimore. Kellam's 72-year-old widow, Alveria, said she supported Austin's release from prison.

This chain of epiphanies did not occur out of the blue.

All these people had been apprised of facts unearthed by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey group that tries to free prisoners it believes, after careful study, to be innocent.

Centurion Ministries conducted an investigation of the Austin case in 1998 and, convinced of the man's innocence, made its findings known to Jessamy's office in February 2000, and by my calendar that's nearly two years ago. James McCloskey, the president of Centurion Ministries, says he had two meetings with one of Jessamy's deputies, Sharon May. "It was all very civilized, but she turned a deaf ear," McCloskey said yesterday, noting that follow-up phone calls to May went unreturned.

A year later, the Austin story appeared in The Sun, and that's when Schmoke, who had been asked by Centurion Ministries to review its findings, made his declarations, along with Swisher, Wase and the widow.

With all that -- a report from Centurion Ministries augmented by the work of Sun reporter Todd Richissin -- one would think review of the facts would be relatively easy for Jessamy's overburdened staff. One would think that Jessamy might be inclined to the same conclusions reached by a growing list of others, who believe the jailing of the innocent is one of humanity's greatest travesties.

If Schmoke, a political ally, had Jessamy's ear, she apparently did not listen.

A few weeks later, in April, her staff filed papers in Baltimore City Circuit Court to oppose Austin's release and the reopening of his case. There were no legal errors in the trial, Jessamy's people concluded, thereby distinguishing themselves as the only law school graduates who looked at the facts, old and new, and saw nothing wrong. Schmoke said he was "dumbfounded" by this.

For McCloskey, there was, sadly, nothing new about it.

Jessamy's response to the discovery of a flawed trial and dubious conviction is "the prevailing reaction" among many district attorneys, he said. Most of them refuse to reopen cases he and his investigators bring them, McCloskey said, and they take a hard line on efforts by others to do so. The attitude: "See ya in court."

McCloskey characterized the Austin case as "the one of most obvious innocence" but Jessamy's reaction to it as "obstructionist."

Why? No one -- not even a fire-breathing, law-and-order conservative -- wants an innocent man in jail. Chief prosecutors are expected to make sound, reasonable judgments about whether to drop or proceed with cases. Why had Jessamy been so stubborn on this one, fighting in April that to which she surrendered yesterday, costing Michael Austin several more months of his life? Why didn't she look at the facts and do the right thing?

"I don't know why," McCloskey said.

Neither do we. We didn't get a chance to pop the question yesterday at Jessamy's 86-second news conference. So here's hoping the question comes up, again and again, at candidates' forums this year as our state's attorney runs for re-election. Let's see her take a walk when a voter asks.

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