Murder case woes are in past, mayor says

E-mail to business leaders says homicide articles are `seven years late'

October 03, 2002|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson and John B. O'Donnell | Kimberly A.C. Wilson and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley sought to reassure the business community yesterday that serious problems with the investigation of murder cases in Baltimore are a thing of the past, even as other experts urged more basic reforms to ensure that arrests turn into convictions.

"Unfortunately, this series is seven years late," O'Malley wrote in a newsletter e-mailed to local business leaders, dismissing articles in The Sun this week that said seven out of 10 homicides in the city go unsolved, unpunished or result in a light sentence for the accused.

The series also detailed murder cases in which defendants went free after police and prosecution missteps. O'Malley called those cases "a handful of tragically unsuccessful prosecutions of some of Baltimore's most violent repeat offenders."

"Because it's America, there will be cases where there is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt," O'Malley said in an interview. "You'll find some that don't stand up."

He added, "The insinuation of the whole series was that the cops ... are dumping garbage cases on the system and no wonder nobody gets prosecuted."

The mayor's remarks came as several officials within the criminal justice system recommended that police be stripped of the power to charge suspects with murder without the approval of the state's attorney.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said the reform, which echoed a proposal rejected by police administrators in 2000, would improve the quality of murder prosecutions. Yesterday, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she wanted that idea studied.

Although police frequently consult prosecutors before charging a murder defendant, it is not required. Some prosecutors have complained, however, that they get weak cases nonetheless.

"This is an archaic system," said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland Law School professor who teaches constitutional and criminal law. "It doesn't make sense to allow the police to continue this old-fashioned model of prosecution. ... The police officer is too close to the arrest to make any kind of independent judgment, particularly where the arrest results in a closed case."

Jessamy said she needed the authority to approve all charges for murder and other serious felonies because police are judged on making arrests and not on being successful in gathering enough evidence to win convictions. "They're judged on clearance. It's a numbers game," she said.

Noting that police officials refused her request two years ago to sign an agreement to give her that authority, she said, "I have pulled it out of mothballs."

The mayor had a curt response to the proposal.

"We won't," he said, "because I have a responsibility to save lives in the here and now."

Police "go out and try to get them off the street before they kill another person, and that's what they're going to continue to do as long as I'm mayor," O'Malley said.

An 18-month investigation by The Sun revealed that 32 percent of the 1,449 homicides in Baltimore between 1997 and the beginning of this year resulted in an arrest and conviction for murder. In the remaining 68 percent, either no one was arrested or the defendant went free or received a short prison term on a reduced charge.

Many cases were dropped or lost at trial after detectives or police officers made critical mistakes during their investigations, or gave testimony that left jurors with so much doubt about whether the defendant was guilty that they refused to convict.

After a downtown campaign event yesterday, Townsend called those numbers unacceptable.

"I don't think anybody can be satisfied with that at all," said the Democratic candidate for governor. "We've got to do a much better job, but we've got to figure out the best way to do it."

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Townsend's Republican opponent for the governor's office, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Townsend stopped short of saying that she would support state legislation to transfer that authority, but she said she would ask the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to take up the issue. "I'm not going to prejudge anything until I hear what they have to say," Townsend said.

The council's chairman, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Stuart Berger, said it is up to the council members to make that decision.

"My understanding is that the police do consult with the state's attorney," he said. "From my perspective as a jurist, it would be certainly worthwhile pursuing whether the state's attorney's office could take an even greater role."

John Henry Lewin Jr., an attorney who formerly led the council, lamented that the authority to charge in homicide cases had taken a political turn.

"To me this is not a power issue, it's a function issue," he said. "Which of the two very important parts of law enforcement should the function belong to?"

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