Officials stall on crime dispute

Prosecutor, police chief not meeting face to face

`It's a communication issue'

Letters swap complaints about handling of cases

Howard County

August 18, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County's police chief and lead prosecutor are at odds over how criminal cases should be handled and over the role of prosecutors stationed in neighborhoods - but neither is pursuing a meeting to resolve their differences.

Nearly four months after Howard police Chief Wayne Livesay sent Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon a letter accusing her office of dropping "any criminal case where there is less than 100% chance of conviction" and McLendon questioned why he would "choose now to raise these issues," the two say they have yet to sit down to discuss their concerns.

"It's a communication issue," McLendon said in an interview. " ... He needs to talk to us because he's hearing second- and third-hand why we did certain things."

Livesay's letter and McLendon's reply were both obtained by The Sun last week through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Both are strongly worded. And both, some observers say privately, are indicative of a long-standing, tension-filled relationship between the two - although Livesay insists that McLendon is a "friend" and that the letter is "not political."

Still, with the prosecutor, who is not seeking re-election, just months from leaving office, Livesay's letter, dated April 25, provoked puzzlement.

In an interview last week, Livesay said he wrote the letter because talk had not done much good in the past. A decision in March by McLendon's office not to prosecute young men accused of raping a teen-age girl in western Howard was the final straw, he said. Livesay said he was told the prosecutors' actions were not supported by the case investigator or the girl's grandmother.

"I tried that before. It obviously didn't work," he said of face-to-face discussion. "And I felt we had reached the point where I needed to start documenting the issues."

He said his concerns also led him several weeks ago to ask federal prosecutors to take over the cases of two defendants - one of them Columbia resident Tavon Sands, who is facing multiple cases in Howard County, including one involving a charge of murder.

Sands had pending drug, gun and armed robbery cases, one more than eight months old, at the time of the homicide in January. Livesay pointed to the oldest case, involving gun and drug possession and said, "Had that been prosecuted [the killing] might have been avoided."

Court records show that the case was postponed at the request of Sands' defense attorney. And McLendon said her understanding was that the U.S. attorney's office would not be taking the Sands murder case because federal authorities have no jurisdiction.

Michael DiPietro, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said that his office does not comment on such referrals "as a matter of policy."

In Livesay's three-page letter, the existence of which was first revealed in a local weekly newspaper this month, he complains of a lack of prosecution or early plea bargaining arrangements in a series of cases and criticizes McLendon's community prosecution effort, which he says has resulted in a "duplication" of police efforts.

"It also leads me to believe that perhaps our criminal cases are not being prosecuted because less time is being spent in the courtroom because your prosecutors are being directed to be police officers," he wrote.

In her eight-page reply, dated May 14, McLendon offers a point-by-point explanation of her office's decision not to prosecute some cases - including the western Howard rape case - and to offer plea bargains in others. She suggests that the chief did not have all the facts.

She also notes several high-profile cases - including the no-body murder prosecution of Dorsey resident Paul Stephen Riggins last year - where there "was not a certain conviction" and says police officers do not have "dibs" on community involvement.

"What I need to say to you at this point is `Get with it' - the solutions to crime and public safety issues ... are not solely in the domain of the Police Department," she wrote.

In separate interviews last week, the chief detailed what he said were long-standing and continuing complaints by officers over the handling of cases by McLendon's office, and McLendon suggested that a call to her office or meeting to discuss the evidence in various cases would have alleviated the chief's concerns.

For example, she and her two deputy prosecutors, I. Matthew Campbell and Dario Broccolino, said the western Howard rape case was complex. After talking to witnesses, the girl's family and the girl - who later admitted her initial claims were not true - and looking at forensic evidence, they decided to drop the case, they said.

"We were disturbed at that night, what happened to that little girl," McLendon said. "It wasn't a criminal case."

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