Optimism is tainted by lingering sadness

December 15, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I don't like to write about the lingering, simmering sadness. But it's part of life. It's the reality of an American city that keeps trying to recover from decades of profound and festering problems. I had hoped I would never hear from Lula Key again - not because she isn't a pleasant woman, but because she always reminds me that, as good as it gets here these days, it's been bad for too many for too long - an epoch of drug addiction and related violence that left thousands of mothers weeping.

Before I tell you about Mrs. Key, I'll tell you about this feeling I had before she called.

It was - and is - a good feeling.

It stems from the fact that, more than ever, this city seems to surprise us with something new and different. It's just not the same old city every day.

I saw a new Best Buy on East Pratt Street - a big-box store in downtown Baltimore. No kidding.

In Canton, I had lunch at a still-unfinished deli, and on my walk there it seemed like everything along or near Boston Street hadn't been there the week before - new or renovated houses, stores and restaurants, and young, good-looking men and women who probably grew up in the suburbs.

Someone showed me a flier for a three-story rowhouse for sale near Patterson Park - $465,000.

Surprise, discovery and optimism take some getting used to.

For a long spell - from about the mid-1980s through the 1990s - we rarely felt this way.

During most of that time, many of us had a sixth sense about Baltimore - a sense of foreboding. Some still do.

But even with all the persistent problems, this is a better city than it was 10 years ago.

Or 20 years ago.

Or 25 years ago, when I first heard Lula Key's voice.

I was still fairly new to Baltimore and the staggering reality of the urban homicide - 300 or more in a year, 3,000 or more in a decade. Killings over drugs, killings in robberies, killings for no reason at all.

The death of Seth Key seemed to fall somewhere between robbery and no reason at all.

It was July 1980. Key was a student at Towson State - that's what it was called back then - employed at a gas station at North Avenue and Belair Road. Someone robbed him of $257 and shot him in the cashier's booth. He was 21 years old.

The senseless crime went unsolved for five years. During that time, I had numerous conversations with Seth Key's mother, Lula Key. She was understandably angry and anxious that her son's killer had not been caught. She called me frequently to talk about the police investigation, and she would almost always end the phone calls in heavy weeping.

I didn't know how to console her. Lula Key carried a pain that is by now familiar to thousands of people who have lost friends and relatives during a decades-long period of urban decline, drug addiction and violence - Baltimore's lingering, simmering sadness.

In 1984, police arrested and charged a man named Steven Sanders with the killing. There was a trial, but not much evidence - only the testimony of two convicted drug dealers who said Sanders told them about the Key killing the next morning. A jury convicted Sanders of second-degree murder, robbery with a deadly weapon and use of a handgun in a crime of violence. A judge sentenced him to 65 years in prison.

Last week, I got the first phone call from Lula Key in all the years since Sanders' conviction. Her voice was instantly familiar; it didn't seem to have changed. She was still upset - this time because Sanders had been released from prison. Something was terribly wrong, Mrs. Key insisted, because Sanders wasn't eligible for a parole hearing until 2013, and no one had taken the time to warn her about Sanders' possible release.

I looked into this for her.

It turns out that, way back during the original investigation of Key's death, police had come across another suspect. A grand jury refused to indict that man, however, and the case remained open until Sanders was arrested.

Sanders and the public defender who handled his post-conviction appeals recently became aware of the other suspect.

In court last week, Judge Allen L. Schwait agreed with them that police erred when they failed to inform Sanders and his trial attorney that they had once pursued this other suspect. The state's attorney's office agreed. Schwait ordered that the balance of Sanders' sentence be suspended and released him.

On Monday, a prosecutor will carefully explain all this to Mrs. Key and a minister.

Again, I don't know how to console her. Sanders had served 20 years. (The average stay of an inmate at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where 56 percent of the residents are serving time for murder, is about 11 years, according to a spokesman for the corrections system). The case against him wasn't all that strong to begin with. That his conviction still stands, and that Sanders served 20 years, is better than the reality Mrs. Key faced when she first contacted me 25 years ago - no arrest, no conviction, no prison time for the man who killed her son.

I guess she'll have to settle for that.

I'm sorry for your pain, Mrs. Key, through all these years. I'm sorry you suffered with so many others through this long, ugly period of drugs and violence. We have to break this cycle or all good things that give us reason for optimism and celebration in the new Baltimore will continue to be tainted by the lingering, simmering sadness.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

For previous columns in this series, an audio clip from Dan Rodricks and links to resources, go to baltimoresun.com/rodricks/drugs.

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