City state's attorney

Election 2002

September 08, 2002

BALTIMORE VOTERS must face the reality: It's time to change the leadership and direction of the city state's attorney's office.

Over the past 7 1/2 years, the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, has had a chance to forge a record of just and consistent outcomes. She has failed.

Her bumbling management allowed repeated, preventable prosecutorial errors so serious that charges had to be dropped against accused murderers and lesser offenders. Yet at one point she stubbornly fought attempts to reopen the case of a man who had been jailed for 27 years on a wrongful murder conviction.

Baltimoreans deserve more scrupulous prosecution than this. The state's attorney's office must recommit itself to fastidiousness, efficiency and, above all, justice.

Councilwoman Lisa Stancil, who has never handled a jury trial, has too little legal seasoning to achieve this. She would have a particularly hard time winning the esteem and cooperation of judges, the U.S. attorney, the Police Department and a multitude of political decision-makers. She also lacks the managerial experience to direct an office of 204 attorneys and 195 support personnel with a $23 million budget.

Anton J.S. Keating, by contrast, has what it takes to effect the overhaul. During a 33-year career, he has been a chief prosecutor in the state's attorney's office, assistant public defender, chief counsel of a fraud unit in the state attorney general's office as well as a private defense lawyer. Over the years, he has developed thoughtful and detailed ideas about how to return force and credibility to the city state's attorney's office.

Mr. Keating has said he would start by reviewing all pending cases to ensure that there are no evidentiary or speedy-trial issues that would lead to dismissals. He would require all prosecutors to work half a day on Saturdays until all the cases are reviewed. Training would be improved.

He would increase prosecutors' cooperation with the Police Department's homicide squad. And although he insists on the constitutional independence of the state's attorney's office, he would refrain from public confrontations with other officials and agencies.

Could the British-born Mr. Keating, who is white, win the confidence of the city's black majority? That would remain to be seen. However, chronic witness absences and embarrassing cases of jury nullifications suggest that Ms. Jessamy, who is black, does not now enjoy that confidence.

Justice, regrettably, is not always color- blind. But unless the state's attorney's office performs better, Baltimore's black residents -- the majority -- will continue to be the most likely victims of crimes that go unpunished. That's why this election should be about a realistic agenda for change, skill and competence.

And that's why Baltimore voters must give Mr. Keating a chance. Because the unacceptable alternative is four more years of the same.

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