Murder charges issue is reopened

Panel to assess if shifting role to prosecutors would improve case success rate

October 10, 2002|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

An influential committee of judges, attorneys and court officials decided yesterday to reopen the knotty issue of who should be able to charge suspects with murder -- the police or the state's attorney.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council voted to assess whether shifting charging authority from police to prosecutors would improve the success rate of homicide investigations in the city. An analysis by The Sun published last week shows that seven out of 10 homicides are unsolved, unpunished or result in a light sentence.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy requested the evaluation, noting that she has been seeking charging authority in homicides and other serious crimes since 2000.

"This has been an issue that has been going on for several years," said Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger, council chairman, in urging that the group consider "advantages and disadvantages" of giving prosecutors greater oversight of murder cases.

Berger and several other members of the council cited The Sun's series that also found that three out of 10 homicides in the city result in the conviction of a defendant for murder.

An 18-month analysis of homicide cases found that they often fall apart in court because of errors by police, including losing and mishandling evidence, failing to conduct forensics tests and relying on questionable witnesses in the filing of charges.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris told the council that the department would soon hire a former prosecutor whose sole responsibility will be to review homicide charging documents and consult on cases.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has previously rejected calls to transfer charging authority to the state's attorney's office, said after the meeting that he is not convinced such a move would make a difference in improving conviction rates.

"What I am prepared to do is look at it and see if that's a problem," he said. "I'm not sure that it is, or ever has been."

A growing body of veteran defense attorneys, prosecutors and academic experts say that such a change is crucial because it puts prosecutors in a position to act as a check on lax police work or honest mistakes by detectives that often result in the acquittal of murder defendants.

A. Dwight Pettit, a defense attorney, said Friday, "The system won't get fixed as long as the police have the authority to bring bad cases to court."

Pettit said he has represented clients in about 20 murder and attempted-murder cases this year -- and "one commonality between them is the practice of the Baltimore police of stopping their investigation as soon as they can get two people to identify the same suspect."

`It's alarming'

"I appreciate that they're making my job easier in court," he said. "But as a resident and a taxpayer, it's alarming."

Said Kenneth W. Ravenell, a former city prosecutor now in private practice: "These problems have not been cured, by any means. ... Absolutely not, they have not been addressed."

A reform undertaken years ago in other major cities, the practice of giving prosecutors the power to act as arbiters of how much evidence is enough to warrant a murder charge has been repeatedly rejected by the Baltimore Police Department.

"I am not prepared to give that up," Norris said after yesterday's meeting, insisting that detectives' power to charge a suspect as soon as they have evidence that a suspect has committed a violent crime is crucial to protecting public safety.

Prosecutors, he added, "don't need leverage over these cases. They work with us every day. We have a good working relationship with them -- and if they disagree with our charging decisions, they are free to turn down any case they want. They do it all the time."

Circuit court data show that the state's attorney's office dismisses charges in about one of every four murder cases.

Steps by department

Norris confirmed yesterday that the department has taken other steps to improve the quality of homicide cases, including:

Reviewing videotaped proceedings in failed murder trials to identify persistent police errors and to better prepare detectives for court presentations.

Col. Robert Stanton, chief of detectives, said last week that the review process is not intended to penalize officers for mistakes, but to "be innovative ... [and] to improve all across the board every way we can."

Consulting with defense attorneys, criminologists and academic experts to improve homicide investigations and identify any nagging lapses.

Stanton said the department is particularly interested in speaking to former prosecutors now in private practice, lawyers who could be considered a "friend of the department."

"We want any help they can give us," he said, "but we're especially interested in somebody who's willing to make a long-term commitment to put on a series of regular seminars on ... anything that might help us."

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