Prelude to murder

August 07, 2007

Aaron Godbolt was a charmer in court even as he stood charged with attempted murder. A jovial guy, according to the judge in his case. Indeed, he had reason to be happy; the 18-year-old victim denied that Mr. Godbolt shot him, and a jury found him not guilty.

But the story doesn't end there. Three months after his acquittal in January 2006, Mr. Godbolt was killed in northwest Baltimore, and the victim at the center of his attempted murder trial, Kevon Gant, goes on trial later this week in an unrelated shooting.

A revolving door of violence is fueling the city's homicide rate, and police should be aggressively investigating nonfatal shootings as much as they are murders. That's because the grim fact is that this week's shooter is next month's homicide victim, and some of those shot become the newest accused killers.

Nonfatal shootings so far this year have increased more than 30 percent over 2006 - steadily climbing, as are homicides. Police say they are making arrests in nonfatal shootings at a brisker pace than the national average of 38.6 percent cited by the FBI for 2005, the most recent available.

But that clearance rate matters less if cases don't result in convictions and prison terms, and if potentially violent suspects return to the street. That's what appears to be happening too often.

A review of 203 nonfatal shooting cases found that city prosecutors in 2006 dropped the charges or lost before a jury more often than they won convictions. Often it was because victims couldn't be found, wouldn't cooperate for fear of retribution, or figured they would settle their grievances on the street. When prosecutors do win convictions, as they did in 88 nonfatal shooting cases last year, some defendants received stiff sentences - including life and 50 years - or were denied parole for five years. But often judges undercut prosecutors' recommendations.

Some judges say nonfatal shooting cases often come before them with no weapon, little physical evidence and shady witnesses - factors that surely won't convince a jury to convict.

Gun violence in Baltimore is too prevalent for law enforcement and the public to focus solely on murders. Nonfatal shootings are often a homicide waiting to happen, and police should treat them that way.

In Aaron Godbolt's first trial, the victim never showed up, and when he was found and testified at the retrial, he wouldn't identify his shooter. Case closed - but not in the public's interest.

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