Belated and urgent

August 02, 2002

REPUBLICAN Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. badgered former U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia for months to move aggressively against the brazen, gun-carrying criminals in Baltimore.

Then, when Republicans won the White House, Ms. Battaglia was out and Mr. Ehrlich got to name her replacement. The new man seemed certain to make gun crime a high priority.

Instead, U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio rejected Mr. Ehrlich's approach. His focus, he said, would be white-collar and political crime. What a setback for Baltimore -- and what a galling embarrassment for the Republican congressman. His chagrin deepened when federal gun prosecutions quickly fell below Ms. Battaglia's: 47 under Mr. DiBiagio, 70 under Ms. Battaglia during a similar period in the previous year.

Mr. Ehrlich said little. But now, as he runs for governor of Maryland, he has written to Mr. DiBiagio with renewed passion and concern. Baltimore's dysfunctional criminal justice system -- very like the one altered by the federal Project Exile in Richmond, Va. -- needs every bit of available assistance, the congressman wrote in a letter this week.

In Richmond, police began to notice that people they arrested were less likely to have a weapon. Lawyers said their clients immediately asked if they could avoid prosecution under Exile. Witnesses were no longer in fear of their well-being if they testified: They saw the perpetrators going off to jail far away from Virginia.

The murder rate went down.

Mr. Ehrlich now appeals to Mr. DiBiagio again: Give Exile a six-month trial in Baltimore, where murders are up, he urges. He said a recent spate of shootings in the city moved him to set aside concerns about interfering with the U.S. attorney's office.

"The crisis of gun violence can be reversed only with an aggressive deployment of every tool at our disposal," he wrote.

Mr. Ehrlich's opponent in the race for governor, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, called Mr. Ehrlich's letter politically motivated. She suggests it was timed to coincide with Mr. DiBiagio's announcement Wednesday that he is investigating allegations of corruption in a program she and Gov. Parris N. Glendening pioneered in Prince George's County.

Politics can't be discounted, of course. But so far, Mr. DiBiagio's actions have seemed to undermine, more than promote, the authority of his patron, Mr. Ehrlich, whose intervention seems a belated one, but welcome nonetheless.

Perhaps now, with his political independence established, Mr. DiBiagio could turn his attention to gun crimes. That issue, after all, gets a high priority from his boss, Attorney General John Ashcroft. If more money is needed, Mr. Ehrlich promises, he can arrange to find it in Washington.

Life and death and the criminal justice system's integrity are at stake.

One is hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that criminals are running things in Baltimore. They may get arrested, but they're seldom convicted and often given relatively mild sentences.

Mr. DiBiagio could help establish the system's credibility. He commands awesome resources; he shouldn't waste them.

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