Baltimore police officers' power to file murder charges is rare

In most cities, authority rests with prosecutors

Justice Undone

October 22, 2002|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

When it comes to prosecuting murder, Baltimore is a rare bird.

In cities around the country, prosecutors decide when to file charges against murder suspects.

Here, that power rests with police detectives - and therein lies the rub. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy wants control of charge filing in homicide cases. Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris say there is no need to change the system in place.

When a panel of local jurists and key players in law enforcement stepped forward Oct. 9 to examine whether that power ought to be reassigned to the state's attorney for Baltimore City, it turned down a little-trodden footpath of criminal justice.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee hopes to reach a decision on the issue in the next several weeks. But there are few precedents for shifting the responsibility from police to prosecutors. Most jurisdictions have never permitted the police to file charges in the most serious crimes, including murder. Traditionally, prosecutors act as a fail-safe to ensure that solid police work backs up the state's accusations against its citizens.

That's how it works in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Boston, Newark and New York City, in whose police department Norris started his career.

There are a handful of smaller cities where police do the charging: In Buffalo and Hartford, detectives have powers similar to those in Baltimore.

Nevertheless, Christopher Slobogin, who teaches criminal law and procedure at the University of Florida, said it's rare to find instances of "formal abdication" by the prosecutor to the police on homicides and serious assaults.

"It is extremely unusual for police to have charging authority in those felony cases," Slobogin said. "It's contrary to the traditional division of responsibility in the criminal justice system, where the role of the prosecutor is as the representative of the state to decide how seriously the state considers the crime."

The question of who files the charges during a homicide investigation is a fundamental issue here, where city police investigated 259 killings last year and have investigated 214 as of yesterday afternoon.

But it is an issue hardly anyplace else.

In Las Vegas, the district attorney must review the adequacy of evidence in murder cases and approve specific charges before they can be filed. Ditto for Chicago, Detroit and Seattle, where, as a veteran homicide investigator put it, "the cops do the police work, and the lawyers do the charging."

The same holds true in Denver, where detectives culminate their investigation of each homicide by submitting paperwork to the prosecutor's office for charging guidance.

"If they turn it down, that's the end of the story," said Denver police Sgt. Michael Anderson.

Anderson had never heard of a police department that held such a power. "So Baltimore gets to file their own charges?" he asked. "I like it. I can imagine the cops want to hold on to it, but ... the problem is, what's your success rate in court?"

Fifteen hundred miles west of Baltimore City Circuit Court, Anderson nailed the key question at the heart of the battle for charging dominion in Baltimore.

An 18-month analysis recently published by The Sun shows that nearly 70 percent of the killings in Baltimore over the past five years went unsolved, unpunished or resulted in a light sentence. The analysis determined that murder cases often fall apart in court because of errors by police, including losing and mishandling evidence, failing to conduct forensics tests, and relying on questionable or too few witnesses in filing charges.

Frank M. Conaway, city clerk of the Circuit Court, sees a remedy for the troubling statistics.

"There are too many people charged who are later acquitted by juries who say there's not enough evidence, and there are too many people wrongly accused who sit in jail until their charges are dismissed. Both things are bad. But that could be improved with the state's attorney's office bringing the charges," said Conaway. "They're more capable at looking at evidence."

Jessamy first raised the issue two years ago when she sent the police commissioner a seven-page memorandum outlining how a reformed system would work.

Douglas L. Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland, has crusaded for such reform for years.

"When you place responsibility with an individual prosecutor, it ensures a better prepared criminal prosecution," he said.

But Colbert said he thinks he understands why the police are reluctant to turn over their authority.

"They are probably afraid to give up the power to charge in the zero-tolerance cases and quality-of-life crimes that are a crucial piece to focus on the public nuisance type of crime," he said. "The fear may be that they would be surrendering this powerful weapon for the more typical zero-tolerance cases."

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