The oldest pending case

April 09, 2007

By the time Simmeon Anderson went to trial for attempted murder last month, seven years had passed since he allegedly shot a man he thought was interfering with his drug business. That's not a misprint - seven years. The case against Mr. Anderson had been postponed an astonishing 27 times, and it should have collapsed from the weight of such delays. Against the odds, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury convicted Mr. Anderson, and he faces a possible 90-year prison sentence in June.

But a system that permits 27 postponements - the majority in this case requested by defense lawyers - is working against itself and the cause of justice. There must be consequences to repeated postponements, and until there are, they will remain business as usual.

A review last year by the Circuit Court clerk's office identified 333 defendants with at least five postponements. Among the top reasons for delays: unavailability of defense attorneys, prosecutors and courtrooms. Despite those findings and the court clerk's push to resolve the problem, the inquiry stalled; a committee is awaiting more data.

In fact, reducing postponements hasn't been a priority for the judiciary or for court administrators, though it should be. Repeated delays are detrimental to a case because time compromises evidence; most memories don't get better, they get worse. And in a city where a bootleg video popularized the credo "stop snitchin'," court delays offer more opportunities for witness intimidation, which undermines a successful prosecution and the integrity of the system.

The Anderson case resulted from a Sept. 12, 2000, shooting in which Derrick Kattrell and his aunt were forced at gunpoint from their car in a purported case of mistaken identity. The case is atypical because it held up in spite of serial postponements, a 2004 conviction that was thrown out, and a plot to silence witnesses. It's also atypical because Mr. Kattrell, who was shot several times and required several surgeries, did show up to testify.

A jury convicted Mr. Anderson of first-degree assault and weapons charges and the court finally cleared its oldest pending case. But without a court commitment to reduce postponements, justice remains in jeopardy.

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