Stop finger-pointing

April 09, 2003

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Despite years of promised improvements, Baltimore drug cases continue to unravel at an alarming rate because laboratory analyses of the evidence are not produced in time for trial.

Prosecutors and police keep blaming each other. But it doesn't matter who is at fault. Finger-pointing will not change this deplorable situation.

When the Baltimore City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meets today, it should skip its regular agenda and resolve the drug-testing mess once and for all. The time for excuses is long past.

In January alone, prosecutors say they dropped 101 cases (out of a total of 623 abandoned for legal insufficiency) because no laboratory tests were available. That's five a day.

The prosecutors had no alternative. Without positive chemical analysis, there is no case. The alleged heroin in evidence bags could be sugar and soda powder, the supposed marijuana could be oregano flakes.

What's more, the number of dropped prosecutions is rising dramatically, up from 23 cases in December and 20 in November, according to the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Such a substantial increase is appalling. Justice is not being done.

Commissioner Kevin P. Clark, who took over the city Police Department in February, did not create this problem; it has existed for years. But he must make sure the lab deficiencies are corrected. If State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has constructive suggestions, she ought to make them in the criminal justice meeting today.

Improving the drug-testing laboratory's performance must be accepted as a top priority of all cogs of the criminal justice system. Otherwise the machinery will continue to be bogged down in ultimately unproductive work.

Cases will continueto be scheduled for trial, and witnesses summoned. Yet in the end the defendants will walk because, in the absence of chemical analysis, there is no convincing evidence.

The bottom line: Money and time are being wasted, making everyone - from police and prosecutors to the public - more cynical about the justice system.

The credibility of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council itself is at stake. If the council can't fix such a glaring defect in the system, why does it exist at all?

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