If state practiced justice the federal way

February 08, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

I am a federalist. You have to understand that before reading further.

I believe in federalism, which the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines as "a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units." In the United States, the "central authority" is the federal government. The "constituent political units" are the states. Our Constitution clearly limits the power of the former and grants all matters not in its purview to the latter.

That means state crimes should be tried in state, not federal, courts. So why did a smile creep across my face when I heard that Nakie Harris will be 114 when he hobbles out of federal prison on a cane, and that Richard Royal will be 81 when he wheezes his way out the doors?

Harris and Royal were convicted of firebombing Edna McAbier's house two years ago. The case was kicked up to federal court. Last Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz handed down sentences for the two. If Harris and Royal didn't know the difference between state and federal courts before then, they sure as heck know it now.

The 30-year-old Harris got smacked with an 84-year bit. Royal, 21, will do a 60-year stretch. Terrence Smith was 24 when he was convicted along with Harris and Royal in December. Smith could get 40 years when he is sentenced.

Those of us who aren't busy dealing drugs, firebombing the houses of brave, law-abiding citizens or committing other crimes have known for quite some time that the federal court system is not like the state court system. Had the Harris-Royal-Smith trio bothered to pick up a newspaper and actually read it, they'd have learned that federal judges hand down harsher sentences, that the jury pool is not the same as the one in Baltimore and that those who are found guilty go far, far away for a long, long time.

So for firebombing the home of a woman who stood up and said a resounding "Hell, no!" to their drug dealing, Harris and Royal will be twiddling their thumbs in a prison far from Baltimore for decades to come. The prospect doesn't exactly leave me prostrate with grief.

But it does leave me with a question: Why did the feds have to get involved in this?

It wasn't long ago that I was sitting in the office of Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. He assured me that if his office had to prosecute Baltimore's criminals -- especially felons who used handguns, or were even caught with handguns -- they would wind up doing long stretches in some federal prison.

Harris and Royal have found out the hard way that Rosenstein ain't joking around.

It would be nice if they had learned the same lesson from the way justice works in Baltimore. They didn't, and for obvious reasons.

According to Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for Baltimore's state's attorney's office, Royal pleaded guilty in December 2004 to a drug manufacturing charge and was sentenced to five years. The sentence was suspended.

In February 2004, Royal pleaded guilty to second-degree assault. His victim was a 64-year-old man who, like McAbier, had called police about drug activity. Royal was sentenced to time served. His three-year sentence was suspended. Sviatko said Royal faced hearings for violation of probation in both cases this April.

So state courts had a chance to put Royal away twice and failed twice. But that's not the reason Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy kicked the arson case of Harris, Royal and Smith up to federal court. According to spokeswoman Margaret Burns, who tried to allay my fears as a federalist, there were other reasons.

"Your fears can be set aside," Burns said. "Ms. Jessamy routinely reviews cases with the U.S. attorney's office. We need to weigh where the best possible prosecution will occur."

In the firebombing of McAbier's home -- and the arson of the Dawson family home in 2002 that left seven dead -- Burns said that federal jurisdiction applied because of allegations of drug trafficking in both cases. The other issue is resources. Simply put, feds have 'em and city prosecutors don't, according to Burns.

"One of the most significant aspects of these arson cases is the tremendous resources the federal government can bring to a case," said Burns, adding that federal prosecutors have the advantage of intelligence-gathering, experts who can perform analyses on arson residue and labs provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Burns said the McAbier and Dawson cases involved witness intimidation. The feds have more resources there, too.

"They can help witnesses change names, locations and jobs," Burns said. City prosecutors can transport a witness "across town," Burns said, or maybe to a surrounding county. Perhaps most important is the issue of public safety: Guys like Harris, Royal and Smith simply have got to go.

Rosenstein told me in his office that he'd like to get the word out to Baltimore's hoods that he's serious about nailing them. I have a better idea.

Let's not tell them a darned thing. Let them find out the hard way.

greg.kane@baltsun,com

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