Snow further delays criminal court system

More than 1,000 cases postponed

dockets already overloaded

February 19, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Yesterday's criminal court docket in Baltimore was an average one: A 17-year-old was to stand trial in the killing of an 18-year-old. A man was to face a jury on charges that he sexually abused a 3-year-old boy. A former parole agent was to be tried on a bribery charge.

But all were postponed because of this week's devastating snowstorm, which shut down roads, schools and airports, and virtually halted most activity in the country's Northeast.

In Baltimore, the snow weighed heavily yesterday on an overburdened judicial calendar, causing about 700 postponements of criminal cases in circuit, district and federal courts. State courts were also closed Monday for the Presidents Day holiday.

"It's certainly possible these additional delays and postponements on our crowded Circuit Court docket could bring about a degree of meltdown -- or operational failure," said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office. "For some time now, there has been no room to maneuver the maze of clogged dockets for important criminal cases."

Another 700 cases will be postponed today because of icy streets and roadside snowdrifts, causing further problems for the criminal justice system, prosecutors and defense lawyers say.

"This just pushes more cases back, backs more cases up," said defense lawyer Warren A. Brown. "It creates more confusion, which is something we already have a surplus of in Baltimore City."

Baltimore Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller said yesterday she must consider transportation and safety issues in deciding whether to close courts for the day, especially for the 300 jurors and courthouse personnel who must report for duty.

Major cases that were delayed yesterday because of the snow closings include that of Jodie Hill, 17, who is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting May 13 of Donta Carter, 18; and Michael Cole, 32, who is standing trial for six counts of child abuse and assault after he was accused of beating his ex-girlfriend's 3-year-old son and mutilating the child's genitals.

Also postponed was the case of Kenneth Sutton and Korey Mable, both 22, who were to be sentenced yesterday for the murder of Dwight Love, 28. Love was shot in January 2001, moments after dialing 911 on his cell phone; an operator heard the fatal gunshots.

The snow closing poses the greatest hardship for criminal felony cases, many of which face delays even when there is no snow. Those cases -- which deal with crimes such as murder, armed robbery and rape -- are often postponed because no judges or courtrooms are available.

"The problems associated with getting witnesses to court are only exacerbated by inclement weather," Burns said.

However, the snow has had some positive effect on the criminal justice system. Burns said that crime has dropped since the snow began falling, with the exception of domestic violence.

While police charge people arrested for crimes such as murder, shootings and child abuse, prosecutors charge those arrested for less serious acts such as theft and minor assaults. On an average 12-hour shift, prosecutors charge between 60 and 100 criminal cases, Burns said. Since Sunday, they have been charging an average of nine cases per shift.

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