Mixed messages from a prosecutor

Jessamy: A reluctance to explain her turnabout in the Austin case doesn't bode well for a vow to be more open to the public.

January 05, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Even Patricia C. Jessamy doesn't remember the last time she held a news conference, so the fact that Baltimore's state's attorney called one Thursday to discuss proposed wiretap legislation was unusual. That she held another the same day to announce she was dropping the Michael Austin case was extraordinary.

But while she was sunny and responsive at the first event, at the second, which lasted less than two minutes, Jessamy curtly refused to answer questions about why she reversed her long-standing opposition to releasing Austin, who spent 27 years in prison on a flawed murder conviction.

Suddenly the whiff of change coming from Jessamy's office seemed more like business as usual.

It was a curious week for Jessamy, who is running for re-election after eight years in office. She appears poised to take a major leap toward improving her public image, while still unsure whether she'll land upright.

Her reputation has taken a beating the past two years, from Mayor Martin O'Malley's attacks on her performance to criticism from police and news media reports. She often didn't respond directly to her critics and rarely sought to publicize accomplishments, sometimes exasperating her supporters.

Even though Thursday's events seemed to deliver a mixed message, Jessamy vowed in an interview yesterday to communicate more effectively.

As to why all the good news about her office hasn't been getting out, she said, "I can't answer that. All I know is that right now, we are hopeful that the word will get out, because we've been doing good things."

But Jessamy had nothing to add on the Austin case - which some of her critics and colleagues say is a mistake.

"All of us eventually have to defend our decisions. Some of us do it every day. Some of us choose to do it once every four years," quipped O'Malley, referring to this year's state's attorney's election.

Others say she has no obligation to reveal her motivation.

But they all agree on one thing: Jessamy has been a faulty communicator to the public at large, and her office and political future can only benefit from a more open relationship with the press.

George W. Collins, a Baltimore media consultant and a reporter for a half-century, said, "I think her skill as a communicator has been totally absent. ... Now whether it was intentional I don't know, but she has not had a good grasp of the importance of interacting with the media."

Weakness with media

No less than her most ardent critics, Jessamy understands that media relations are not her forte. She's a lawyer, she said yesterday. A lawyer in charge of roughly 200 other lawyers. She hasn't been afraid of the press or hiding out - and as a former thespian and debater, she's certainly not afraid of public speaking. She's just been busy, she said, and careful.

Enter Margaret T. Burns, the new chief of communications and governmental affairs. "There are two ways to relate to the news: proactive vs. reactive. Unfortunately this office has been in the reactive position for many months," she said.

That's an understatement, as the lack of media tools in Jessamy's office attests. There's no office podium, no microphone and no conference room. There's nowhere for TV trucks to park outside the circuit courthouse buildings, and no easy access for photographers. Her predecessor had no direct phone line and was inaccessible after about 4:30 p.m. Last year, Jessamy's office issued 41 press releases; her counterpart in Montgomery County sent out two or three each day.

And, most significantly, Jessamy herself usually had no eagerness to talk to reporters. All this, say Burns and Jessamy, is about to change. "We both have a very strong commitment to public information," Burns said. They have more news conferences planned, about gun initiatives and community prosecuting and juvenile programs and ways to improve court appearances by witnesses and police.

Former Mayor and city State's Attorney Kurt L. Schmoke thinks it's high time. Schmoke has been a Jessamy promoter and, like many others, says he has heard her speak effectively at community meetings and at churches.

Last summer, he approached some of her senior staff, he said. "I told them that I had some concerns about her television appearances and the lack of succinctness in explanations for the print media. I conveyed that as a friend of hers."

Jessamy admits she has at times "appeared defensive, rather than accountable," as she wrote in a fall newsletter. In the Austin case, she has never talked at any length about why she opposed his release.

Because the 1974 case predated her administration by decades - and even the prosecutor who worked on the case said Austin never should have been tried - her position surprised many observers.

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