Judges making bail decisions shouldn't be second-guessed

July 31, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE YOUTH, still in his teens, was charged with shooting another boy. The bone of contention this day was whether the bail should be $35,000.

Sound familiar? Read on.

The suspect in this instance was 15-year-old Robert Corporal. He appeared in Courtroom 4 of the District Court on Wabash Avenue in late September. He was charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder. The task of District Judge Jamey H. Weitzman was to determine Corporal's bail status. A court commissioner had ordered the boy held without bail.

Public defender Lenwood Ivey represented Corporal. His client was also a victim of a shooting, Ivey told Weitzman. He had been shot in the shoulder before the shooting he was charged with committing. The eyewitness who fingered him, Ivey said, was a relative of the victim in the shooting in which Corporal is accused. The public defender assured Weitzman that Corporal wasn't a flight risk and asked her to set bail at $25,000.

A representative from pretrial services told Weitzman that Corporal had no prior record and recommended a bail of $35,000. Weitzman decided that Corporal should be held without bail, and gave her reasons.

"This is a 15-year-old with a handgun," she said. "That makes him perhaps the most dangerous person in the city. Fifteen-year-olds with handguns don't belong on the street. A 15-year-old with a handgun is very risky."

Corporal's family members gathered in the court appreciated neither Weitzman's decision nor her comments. But Weitzman had a decision to make and erred, if indeed she did, on the side of public safety.

Fast forward nearly 10 months. Perry Spain, just four years older than Corporal, stands in the District Court on Wabash Avenue before Judge George M. Lipman, accused of firing the gun that sent a bullet through the neck of 10-year-old Tevin Montrel Davis. The folks from pretrial tell Lipman that Spain has been at his address 19 years, has no prior criminal record and was enrolled at Morgan State University.

Attorney Warren Brown, representing Spain, tells Lipman his client is not a flight risk, is respected and known in the neighborhood and cooperated with police in the investigation of Tevin's shooting. Brown said some stick-up boys robbing a craps game started the shooting and asked for a bail of $25,000.

Any of this sounding familiar? The Corporal and Spain bail hearings are strikingly similar, down to the bail requested by defense lawyers. In the first case pretrial recommended a bail of $35,000. In Spain's case the judge, using his own discretion, set bail at $35,000. Representatives from the state's attorney's office appeared in neither case.

"Usually a public defender is in court [during a bail review hearing]," said District Judge Keith E. Mathews. "But there is always someone from pretrial services who has interviewed the defendant and checked his record."

In short, there was nothing unusual about the Spain bail review hearing, in spite of all the recriminations about which government agency did or didn't do what and who didn't tell who what they needed to tell them. Mathews elaborated further on the bail review process.

"It's the court commissioner who sets bail, releases the defendant [on his own recognizance] or holds him without bail," Mathews said. If the bail isn't paid, the suspect goes before a District Court judge for a bail review hearing. That judge can either lower the bail, leave it the same or raise it, based on the pretrial interview, the suspect's record and the seriousness of the allegation. Judges conducting bail review hearings have an additional task.

"The court has to make a decision based on the facts presented in court," Mathews said. "We can't go on what's in the newspaper or what the mayor says." The facts in Spain's statement of probable cause were, Mathews said, "very sketchy."

Those facts were so sketchy that Lipman asked for -- and didn't get -- evidence, forensic or otherwise, that linked Spain to a handgun. Brown said no handguns had been recovered in the case (as of the date of the bail review hearing) and said it's possible Tevin may have been hit by a bullet from one of the stick-up boys. Mathews feels Lipman did the best he could with the facts before him.

The same could be said of Weitzman.

"Each judge will handle it differently," Mathews said. In other words, they look at the evidence and make a judgment call. Hence the name of their profession. Anyone wishing to second guess a Lipman -- or a Weitzman -- should don the robes and try sitting behind the bench for a spell.

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