Dead become mundane as exodus from city increases

April 30, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IT WAS a beautiful weekend in the city of Baltimore, if you don't include Anthony Brooks. He was fatally shot in his wheelchair and then buried back on Page 7 of the morning newspaper. The important news was out on Page 1, where the newest census figures showed 15,944 more people packed their bags last year and did not look back at the city, fearing they'd be turned into pillars of salt.

Anton Keating noticed some of this, and wished to launch a few hundred balloons to symbolize the troubles: one balloon for each killing of the past year. But Keating joked that Patricia C. Jessamy, the state's attorney, would have him arrested for littering.

How could she ever notice, amid such a litter of bodies?

More likely, Jessamy would like to arrest Keating for coming after her job. Keating announced his candidacy Sunday afternoon at Sascha's Restaurant, 527 N. Charles St. It was a beautiful moment. Around the corner, crowds gathered at the Walters Art Museum. Farther up Charles, they could head for the Museum of Art and see a wonderful display produced by Baltimore County school kids.

It's a great city, if you avoid such places as Anthony Brooks' final stop. Brooks, 26, was sitting in his wheelchair 2 o'clock Saturday morning in the 500 block of E. Preston St. when somebody shot him repeatedly. Once, this would have been seen as horror: a disabled man in a wheelchair, defenseless on the street, and some thug pops him.

The problem is, Brooks seems part of a pattern. He was, as a city cop said yesterday, "not one of the choirboys." He had a history of arrest for drugs, handgun possession, attempted murder, assault, trespassing, drug possession with intent to distribute, possession of a deadly weapon. He's been in a wheelchair since 1998, when somebody else shot him but did not kill him. Brooks was merely paralyzed that time.

Saturday night, he went to a joint on Oliver Street known as Shirley's Honey Hole. Police say he got into an argument. He left the place under some duress. Shortly thereafter, somebody shot him again and again.

This has all the markings, in other words, of somebody leading a really bad life ticking off somebody else leading a bad life, and revenge taking place. Which is why, in the morning paper, the killing of this man in a wheelchair gets three paragraphs back on Page 7.

It also tells us why 15,944 more people fled the city last year and continued to plant themselves among the various growing suburbs. There is reality, and there is fear that takes on a life of its own. We can talk all day about the city's museums and its vibrant neighborhoods and its diminishing crime rate.

But it does not get us past the misperception that danger is everywhere in the city -- and it does not get us past a criminal justice system that cannot cope with the troubles of neighborhoods where it is truly ferocious.

And this gets us back to Keating, and to Jessamy, too.

It is the job of the state's attorney to prosecute criminals. This is a function of a few things: the amount of crime, and the ability of police to arrest it. In the city's current abundance, we have a state's attorney's office that sometimes seems dizzied by the number of cases, and the speed with which they arrive.

"It's out of control," Keating was saying Sunday. "It's chaos. We have vicious criminals who have walked away."

Partly, he referred to well-publicized murder cases botched by the state's attorney's office over the past several years, with allegations swirling over mishandled evidence, hidden evidence, cases falling apart or bargained away. Jessamy has been slammed by the mayor of Baltimore, and by judges -- but has steadfastly contended her office is handling the flood of cases with professional expertise.

By most professional estimates, about 80 percent of the criminal cases involve narcotics. On Sunday, Keating was asked about this.

"We've got to consider changing the drug laws," he said. "The middle and upper classes can pay for their chemical imbalances, and the poor can't. We can't put 'em all in prison." What's his alternative? "I'm not sure," Keating said. "I'm not sure." He rattled off a list of names that went back at least a quarter-century in this city: Liddie Jones, Junior Bunk, Peanut King, all major traffickers of heroin, all of whom went to prison -- and still the trafficking went on.

The drug traffic has helped drive a few generations of citizens to the suburbs -- 15,944 in the past year. Many are people who do not make the distinction between the city's delights and its areas of decay.

They only need to notice that the killing of a man in a wheelchair rates no more than a ho-hum burial on Page 7 of the morning newspaper.

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