O'Malley seeks group to monitor courtrooms

Appeals to businesses to fund, organize effort

July 25, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

While angrily criticizing Baltimore's court system, Mayor Martin O'Malley yesterday called for the formation of a volunteer watchdog group that would monitor gun cases and the judges who preside over them.

The group would provide a visible reminder to judges and prosecutors that the public cares and wants long prison sentences for gun crimes, O'Malley said at a news conference in which he heavily criticized judges and prosecutors.

He appealed to the city's business leaders for money and volunteers to organize the effort.

Members of the watchdog group would periodically write reports on which judges and prosecutors were following state sentencing guidelines and which were letting violent criminals off easy, according to O'Malley.

"We need to start watching the courts on a routine basis so they improve the conviction and sentencing of gun crimes," the mayor said at the city hall news conference, as he was flanked by top city officials and several business leaders. "We can't expect neighbors to be courageous in stepping up as witnesses if we don't put violent gun criminals behind bars for a long time."

O'Malley accused local judges and prosecutors of failing to follow sentencing guidelines and letting violent criminals off with light sentences - claims that are disputed by those he is criticizing. The mayor raised the complaints in response to city District Judge George M. Lipman's release of 19-year-old Perry Spain, who is charged in the shooting of 10-year-old Tevin Montrel Davis, on $35,000 bail.

Judicial officials defended Lipman yesterday, saying that he acted appropriately given the information he was provided at a bail hearing, which prosecutors did not attend.

Also criticized yesterday was the office of city state's attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. The mayor unveiled charts that he said show suspects in gun cases prosecuted by Jessamy's office have been receiving shorter sentences.

The average sentence in nonfatal gun cases prosecuted by Jessamy's Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement Unit fell from 23.7 years in the first quarter of 2000 to 11.3 years in the first quarter of 2002, according to the mayor's office.

The mayor also presented statistics that he said show city circuit judges have been following state sentencing guidelines in about 24 percent of the cases, and handing out sentences below the guidelines 72 percent of the time and above guidelines 3 percent of the time.

Jessamy defended her record during her news conference yesterday. "We're doing a fantastic job with what we have to work with," she said. Her spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, said Jessamy's office had not been given the opportunity to review O'Malley's figures, which she said could be misleading.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee business organization, said yesterday that the mayor is right to ask the business community for volunteers to help monitor the courts. But Hutchinson added that it might be hard for businesses to give up many employees during business hours to sit in courtrooms.

A better solution, Hutchinson said, might be to have businesses pay for and organize a court watch group, then have the group recruit retirees, interns and others not vital to daily business operations to be at the courtrooms.

Legal experts said yesterday that they did not see O'Malley's effort to pressure judges and prosecutors as a violation of the constitutional separation of judicial and executive powers.

"He could be making speeches criticizing the courts that would have similar effects," said professor Mark Tushnet, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center. "That's what public officials ought to do."

Sun staff writers Del Quentin Wilber and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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