Drugs, a killing thing

March 17, 2004

WHEN FIVE BULLETS slammed into Beldin Dillard on Feb. 13, 2003, he became another statistic, another casualty of the violence on Baltimore streets. A 36-year-old heroin dealer, Mr. Dillard was trying to reclaim his old corner, offering free samples to customers. His murder could be dismissed as one drug dealer's version of beating the competition. But it deserves attention because it illustrates the nexus between Baltimore's narcotics trade and the violence on city streets, the prevalence of drug activity by murder victims and suspects and the difficulty in halting the cycle of violence.

Last year, Baltimore recorded 271 murders - a 7 percent increase over 2002 that showed the city's success at reducing the murder rate had stalled. A police analysis of homicides for 2003 shows why the department's focus on the drug trade is essential to lowering the city's murder rate. An overwhelming majority of murder victims (82 percent) and suspects (68 percent) in 2003 had previous drug arrests, at least two. More than a third were on parole or probation.

The profiles hold true for Beldin Dillard and the drug dealer convicted last month of his murder, Larry E. Burton. Their pasts attest to why we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem. Their run-ins with police show that law enforcement alone can't keep a drug dealer off the street. Police, prosecutors and judges have to be united in a common goal. That means police work that holds up in court, prosecutors prepared for trial and sentences with purpose. In their absence, cases aren't prosecuted, convictions carry few consequences and sentences are merely words on paper.

When Beldin Dillard was gunned down, he had been out of prison only three months, according to prosecutors. His return to the drug world was predictable. Since 1984, Mr. Dillard had been arrested 11 times for drug possession or distribution. The most jail time he'd served was a year for a 1986 handgun conviction. In 1999, Mr. Dillard pleaded guilty to selling heroin and cocaine, possession with intent to distribute and a handgun violation. He received a prison term of seven years and six months, served about half of it and was released.

Larry Burton was on probation when Mr. Dillard was murdered. He had been convicted in 2002 of selling heroin on Mr. Dillard's old turf, but the bulk of his five-year prison term was suspended. Earlier arrests for drug possession, car theft, assault and robbery with a deadly weapon were never prosecuted. He was given probation after his first drug conviction, in 2000.

Their arrest records suggest they may have been drug users. Why weren't they referred for treatment? If they weren't eligible for treatment, why weren't they doing prison time?

Before Mr. Dillard's murder, Mr. Burton had never been convicted of a crime of violence. But their argument over the heroin trade on a city street left one dead, the other a convicted murderer facing 50 years in prison for taking care of business in a business that destroys lives, corrupts communities and poisons a city.

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