A `broken' system scrutinized

Previous handling of suspect in officer's killing draws criticism of justice in the city

January 11, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey | Gus G. Sentementes and Annie Linskey,sun reporters

So Murdock — When the future of Brandon Grimes was in the hands of Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock nearly two years ago, he had two previous criminal convictions - both for nonviolent offenses - on his record. And the new charges before the judge were also for nonviolent offenses committed while he was on probation.

So Murdock - like other city judges routinely dealing with towering caseloads - accepted a guilty plea from Grimes for theft and multiple probation violats, giving him four concurrent six-month prison sentences.

But under a previously suspended sentence for an earlier conviction, Murdock could have put him away for as long as 10 years. Now Grimes stands accused of killing an off-duty city police officer this week in a botched robbery.

"These were all nonviolent offenses," Murdock said in an interview yesterday. "That was his whole record. There were no guns. ... There was no indication that the unfortunate incident that happened [Tuesday] would occur. So I felt six months was appropriate. In hindsight, I would love to have a crystal ball and know which defendants who appear before me will commit acts of violence."

The efficacy of the city's criminal justice system is being scrutinized and criticized anew after Baltimore police charged Grimes, 21, on Tuesday in the killing of Detective Troy L. Chesley Sr.

Chesley, 34, a 13-year veteran who worked as a housing officer, was gunned down outside his girlfriend's home in Northwest Baltimore shortly after finishing his shift. Police officials expressed frustration that Grimes, who was shot in the attack and tracked down at a hospital, had been arrested about 17 times over the past three years, though he had only a few convictions.

At a meeting yesterday of the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group of law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges and other public servants, discussion turned briefly to Chesley's killing and how the system deals with chronic criminal offenders, particularly violent ones.

"We can hold this truth to be self-evident: that the system is broken," said Jason Weinstein, a prosecutor with the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore who is chief of the violent crime division. "Any system that is this complex, for it to be broken is everyone's responsibility."

Judge John M. Glynn, chairman of the coordinating council and chief of the Circuit Court's criminal docket, said at the meeting that "we have to acknowledge the systemic failures."

"You can't live in a democratic society if people are frightened," Glynn said. "The focus has to be on violent offenders. The criminal justice system, on the street, has to be a credible deterrent."

In an interview after the meeting, Glynn said that the city Circuit Court system deals with about 10,000 felony cases a year but has the capacity to hold only about 500 jury trials.

He said Murdock's action in Grimes' case in 2005 - where the penalties for a probation violation and a new offense are combined when a defendant agrees to plead guilty - has become common in a court system struggling to respond to the "huge number of crimes we have in the city of Baltimore."

"It's an effort to remove the people who don't have charges for violence and focus on the ones who do," Glynn said.

"Every time you make a decision in a case, you know there are potential secondary ramifications," Glynn added. "You just don't know what they are."

Chesley had finished his shift and arrived at his girlfriend's home in West Forest Park about 1:20 a.m. when he was approached by a man with a gun. During the shooting, Chesley was struck several times, dying at Sinai Hospital.

The suspect, who police have identified as Grimes, was struck in the leg and found after being admitted with gunshot wounds to St. Agnes Hospital. He has been charged with first-degree murder.

Grimes spent a lot of time in Pen Lucy, a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood where his grandparents own three homes.

"It's a very serious thing. I feel for [the officer's] family. I have respect for the police," said Gerald McCall, the suspect's uncle. He added that he did not understand why his nephew would shoot someone. "We didn't raise him that way," he said. He has not been able to visit Grimes in the hospital.

But McCall acknowledged that his nephew was frustrated with the law and got into a lot of trouble with police. "Every time he makes bail, he gets arrested again," he said.

As an adult, Grimes was arrested about 17 times, almost entirely in Baltimore, according to law enforcement records. His charges over a 3 1/2 -year period included: drug possession; stolen auto; destruction of property; burglary; theft; traffic violations; false statement to police; assault and reckless endangerment, court records show.

He had two pending cases for handgun violations. Arrested in March and April - several months after finishing the six-month sentence imposed by Murdock - it was the first time Grimes had ever been charged with illegal possession of a handgun.

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