3 Sun journalists win 2002 national award for public service reporting

3-part series examined serious problems in city's criminal justice system

March 08, 2003|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

A team of three Sun journalists has won a National Journalism Award for public service reporting in 2002.

Jim Haner, John B. O'Donnell and Kimberly A.C. Wilson won first place for "Justice Undone," a three-part investigative series published in the fall that revealed serious flaws in Baltimore's criminal justice system.

Another staff member, Ann LoLordo, was a finalist for editorial writing in the contest, sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

After examining 1,449 homicides that occurred between 1997 and 2001, the reporters discovered that only 32 percent ended in murder convictions. In the other cases, charges were dropped before trial, defendants were acquitted or convicted of lesser charges or the crimes were never solved.

The series chronicled the experiences of defendants like Solothal Thomas - known on the streets as "Itchy Man" - who dodged hard time in two homicide and 12 attempted murder cases. There was also Courtney Noakes, a towering, 300-pound man who was charged with murder three times and acquitted.

The investigation revealed how the criminal justice system broke down on many levels: from police officers, detectives and prosecutors who lacked the experience and discipline to assemble and try strong cases, to skeptical jurors and witnesses who, fearful of retribution, changed their testimony or refused to testify.

The articles also examined political tensions between Mayor Martin O'Malley and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who argued that her office could not improve the quality of cases because the police, not prosecutors, had the power to bring criminal charges.

In the weeks after the series was published, the city ordered additional training for detectives and prosecutors, formed a special unit of senior prosecutors and police commanders to review investigative files before charging and created a system to identify repeat offenders, so that those cases would receive special handling.

A board of judges, attorneys and court administrators was formed to consider whether the charging function should be transferred from the Police Department to the state's attorney's office.

Yesterday, Baltimore law enforcement officials announced an agreement to allow the state's attorney's office to review police charging documents in serious criminal cases before they go to District Court commissioners or judges.

In the National Headliner Awards contest sponsored by the Press Club of Atlantic City, Sun editorial writers Robert Benjamin and Karen Hosler received second-place honors.

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