Mayor derides Cochran's claims

Lawyer's blaming city for arson that killed 7 is labeled `pretrial hype'

January 09, 2003|By Tom Pelton and Laura Vozzella | Tom Pelton and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley dismissed yesterday as "pretrial hype" claims by lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. that the city's "Baltimore Believe" anti-drug campaign was to blame for the arson deaths of an East Baltimore family.

Cochran recently sent the city a letter saying that a lawsuit might be filed on behalf of relatives of the Dawson family, whose seven members were killed in an arson Oct. 16.

A 21-year-old neighbor of the family, Darrell L. Brooks, has been charged with setting the fatal fire at the family's rowhouse on East Preston Street.

Police have said the Dawsons' house was torched in retaliation for the family's repeated calls to police to report local drug dealers.

In addition to the Believe campaign, Cochran has blamed the deaths on the criminal justice system's failure to lock up Brooks for having violated his probation, which is a state responsibility.

A lawyer with Cochran's firm said Tuesday that the city's Believe campaign, which encourages residents to report dealers, was "reckless" because it urged people such as the Dawsons to put themselves in danger without providing effective witness protection.

O'Malley said yesterday that the firm's attack on the Believe campaign would not undermine its message that citizens should have the courage to stand up to drug dealers.

"This is just part of what the Cochran firm does to try to induce a settlement," said O'Malley. "Coming from out of town, I don't think they understand our determination to rid ourselves of the 24-7 occupation of our street corners by drug dealers."

The mayor was careful not to criticize the family of Angela Maria Dawson and Carnell Dawson Sr., and their five school-age children, all of whom were killed by the fire.

"I don't blame the Dawson family at all for wanting to retain counsel to see what their rights are," O'Malley said. "It is horrible beyond imagination what happened."

O'Malley said the Dawsons' deaths, rather than derailing the Believe campaign, spurred people to pledge millions of dollars to the nonprofit effort and volunteer to help. The campaign recruits mentors to help at-risk youths and encourages addicts to seek treatment.

"The Dawson tragedy actually inspired a lot of participation in the Believe campaign," O'Malley said. "It inspired all of us more. It really drove home the urgency of our challenge. ... That sad little house has become our Alamo, and nobody in this administration will forget it."

A lawyer handling the Dawson matter for Cochran's firm, Janelle Byrd-Chichester, said yesterday that the city failed by neglecting to station a squad car outside the Dawsons' home after it was firebombed Oct. 3.

The city knew that the Dawsons had been targeted by drug dealers because the family had repeatedly called police but failed to prevent the second, fatal fire at the home Oct. 16, she said.

"I applaud the sentiment [of the Believe campaign], but the city needs a complete program so that when people take the risk of stepping forward, the city will provide more protection for them. ... Baltimore has a long history of witnesses being killed," Byrd-Chichester said.

Prosecutors have said they offered to relocate the Dawson family before the second fire but that the Dawsons resisted, saying they did not want to be forced out of the neighborhood by drug dealers.

In addition to saying that the city inadequately protected the Dawsons, the Cochran firm also contended that Brooks, a probation violator, should have not been on the street at the time of the deadly fire.

Brooks, who was on probation for another offense, could have been jailed months before the fire because he never reported to his probation agent. But the agent overseeing his case never acted on the violation, officials with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have acknowledged.

"The individual who now is charged with this offense ... should not, under these circumstances, have been allowed to remain on the streets to carry out this heinous act of violence," Cochran wrote in a Nov. 26 letter to O'Malley.

Byrd-Chichester said the law firm is considering bringing a claim against the state as well as the city, but the lawyers have not contacted state officials.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for Public Safety and Correctional Services, declined to comment.

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