1,000 trials a week crush city's courts, delay justice

Chaos: The disposition of hundreds of violent crimes languishes, with proceedings scheduled and rescheduled, as the system staggers under a crushing caseload.

January 29, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Maryland vs. Perry Spain was ready to begin. It had been five months since Spain was charged with shooting a 10-year-old West Baltimore boy in the neck, and the wheels of justice were ready to turn: A defense lawyer prepared his opening statement, a prosecutor lined up his witnesses and a police officer rearranged his schedule to testify.

But the attempted-murder case, which riveted the city's attention last summer because of the brazenness of the crime, abruptly ground to a halt earlier this month. There were no Baltimore Circuit Court judges available to hear the case.

The Spain trial, rescheduled for March, and hundreds of others in Baltimore's courts are postponed under the crushing weight of a 1,000-trial-a-week criminal docket.

Courts have become so overwhelmed that cases dealing with the most heinous crimes often must be put on hold for months because key ingredients of a trial aren't available - a courtroom and a judge.

"If there's some sort of cosmic alignment, you go to trial," said Adam Rosenberg, a prosecutor in the sex crimes division of the state's attorney's office, who handles many cases involving abused children.

"I can't tell a witness this will be over in six weeks. I tell children, `This might last until your next birthday. We're going to be together for a while.'"

Postponements are often damaging to criminal cases - witnesses' memories fade over time or, worse yet, the witness might disappear. In the Spain case, for instance, a key witness who had identified Spain as the gunman was murdered two months ago.

"There are just too many cases. The system can't accommodate them," said defense lawyer Warren A. Brown, who is representing Spain. "There are so many indications that this system is bulging at the seams."

Baltimore's criminal justice system hears or postpones a minimum of 200 cases each day involving defendants accused of crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery, drug dealing and sexual child abuse.

Lawyers and judges describe the system as chaotic and often playing itself into the hands of defense attorneys adept at working postponements to their advantage.

"In Baltimore County I get in and get out. If they say you're going to trial, you go to trial," Brown said. "You can't take advantage of the chaos like you can in Baltimore City. In Baltimore, the defendants are winning, the tail is wagging the dog."

Judge John M. Glynn, who became the judge in charge of the criminal docket this month, said the problem is sheer volume. In order to make the system run smoothly and without constant delays, Glynn says, he would have to clone himself "20 times."

Trials are rarely heard on the first date they are assigned. Often, the prosecutor or defense lawyer asks for a postponement, but other times there is no court available.

Administrative court

In either situation, the case is sent to administrative court, an often helter-skelter lunchtime assemblage in a crammed courtroom, in which a judge is supposed to assign new court dates to about 60 cases.

Brown said a good lawyer will know how to navigate through the quirks and delays of the city's court system.

"Everything happens so fast, it is like surviving in an urban neighborhood," Brown said. "You have to know the alleys, who hangs in what neighborhood, who hangs out in which area, where the safe houses are. You get a lot of mileage out of knowing the quirks of the different players."

The circuit's 14 judges split up the daily load of criminal cases, which include felony trials, arraignments and misdemeanors.

There are nine felony judges, each assigned nine to 15 cases a day. While all of them are set for trial each morning at 9:30, a judge is able to preside over only one trial each day.

All of the remaining cases are resolved by the judge with plea deals or sent to administrative court to be assigned a new trial date.

"You have 14 judges with criminal dockets that are exploding," said A. Dwight Pettit, a local defense lawyer who said seven out of every 10 of his cases are postponed because there is no court available.

When cases finally do go to trial, judges don't begin hearing them until 10:30 a.m. at the earliest because they must first handle plea deals and administrative issues on their dockets.

Glynn said he usually has about 10 cases on his docket in addition to the trial he will hear that day. Of those, he said, about four are urgent cases involving serious offenses that should immediately go to trial.

Justice diminished

Instead, those cases are sent to administrative court to be assigned a new trial date.

"They cry out to be tried now," Glynn said. "It is painful to me to realize that justice is being diminished because of our inability to get cases to trial as fast as we need to get them to trial."

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