Jessamy points to progress made during her tenure

September 01, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

AND NOW, IT'S Patricia Jessamy's turn.

You've already heard from Baltimore state's attorney candidates Lisa Stancil and Anton Keating in this space. Today, the incumbent Jessamy gets her chance at bat and the opportunity to tell voters why she should remain in office.

"I've probably got more to tell you because I've done more," Jessamy said as she sat in her office last week. She then went on to list what she believes are her office's accomplishments.

"It was an archaic system when I took over" in 1995, Jessamy said. "When I took over, there were no computers in the office. We're now fully automated."

There were just fewer than 7,000 felony defendants in 1995. For the year 2001, there were more than 10,000.

"You can't manage that caseload manually," she said.

There is the Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement Unit, which has convicted more than 970 gun-toting thugs. The Special Investigative Cross Divisional Unit has used electronic surveillance to take down 15 drug organizations, indict 140 people and convict 71, including two drug kingpins.

There's SAVE (Stopping Adolescent Violence Early), which targets 16- and 17-year-olds caught with handguns, and Operation Safe Neighborhoods with its message of "compassionate intolerance" in the Park Heights and Cherry Hill neighborhoods. (Jessamy wants to expand that program citywide from those two communities and the two small East Baltimore neighborhoods it now serves.)

The homicide unit has been expanded to 17 assistant state's attorneys. Jessamy says she has implemented a 24-7 charging operation at the Central Booking and Intake Center, the fancy name for the city jail. There are witness protection programs and police liaison programs and child abuse programs, so what's with all this abuse heaped on Jessamy?

Well, there's that discovery thing, for one.

Several articles have run in this paper about murder suspects being cut loose because the state's attorney's blew it on discovery. In simple English, it's like this: Prosecutors are supposed to let defense attorneys know if they have any exculpatory evidence regarding the defendant. (Don't run to the dictionary. It just means any evidence that might show the defendant didn't do it.)

"Discovery is a problem for every prosecutor's office in the country," Jessamy said. "We're totally dependent on the police to keep us informed. A lot of times, we didn't get the discovery information from the police."

The part about the police may be buck-passing, maybe not. But as for the part about other state's attorney's offices having the same problem, consider that in Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis' murder trial in Atlanta, the judge had to chide prosecutors not once, but twice, for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense.

"We're trying to balance witness protection with giving the defense access," Jessamy said of her office's discovery problems. "When you give up all the information you have about witnesses, that information can be used to threaten and intimidate them."

Jessamy has also caught heat for the way her office handled the matter of Michael Austin, the man who spent 27 years in prison based solely on the eyewitness testimony of a man who recanted.

Austin was released after a post-conviction hearing in which prosecutors challenged another eyewitness who swore Austin was not the man who held up a grocery store and fatally shot a security guard.

"We get over 200 post-conviction requests annually," Jessamy said. "It is routine for our assistants to review the post-conviction request and, if there is no allegation of proof of innocence, then we respond and go in for a hearing.

"If there had been DNA testing that said Michael Austin was innocent or some other evidence which said that he was innocent I would have joined forces with the defense -- not to have a hearing, but to have Michael Austin released."

Jessamy noted a 1993 Sun article by reporter Jay Apperson about Austin's third post-conviction relief hearing that brought forth many of the same facts heard in Austin's 2001 post-conviction hearing, but the poor guy still did another eight years.

Jessamy stressed that she has to handle in the same way all post-conviction relief hearings where there is no proof of innocence. Make an exception in one of the 200 yearly cases, and she'd have to make one in the other 199. When a judge ruled that Austin was entitled to a new trial, Jessamy said she "thought it was fair and equitable not to have a new trial."

Polls show Jessamy in a dead heat with her opponents in the state's attorney's race. Each has something to offer Baltimore voters. Whatever the outcome, the night of Sept. 10 looms as the most exciting one in years for Baltimore voters.

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