And justice for all?

Our view: Abell report on juries suggests need for greater review

August 21, 2008

Witness intimidation in Baltimore had become such a threat to prosecuting criminals that State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy led a campaign to better protect witnesses. She has personally delivered copies of the bootleg video Stop Snitchin' to state lawmakers to emphasize the seriousness of the problem. Mrs. Jessamy has had to rely on federal prosecutors to go after some accused murderers and accomplices whom city juries just won't convict. Increasingly, her prosecutors have faced tough odds in trying to convict criminals. Among the difficulties - mistrust of police, impressionable jurors, faulty forensic evidence, improper searches, iffy witnesses. One or any number of those factors combined can compromise a case and the ability to win a conviction. Mrs. Jessamy knows intimately how these issues challenge Baltimore juries.

But she is outraged by an Abell Foundation study on jury verdicts in the city and three neighboring counties that found juries in Baltimore are less likely to convict than those in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, suggesting serious flaws in the administration of justice in the city. Mrs. Jessamy believes the study itself is fatally flawed. She rejects its proposal for a regional jury pool to help address the disparity and wants the as-yet-unpublished report dumped. How valid is a report that does not "go behind the numbers and find out why something is happening," Mrs. Jessamy asks.

That's just what should be done. It would be in Mrs. Jessamy's interest and those of the citizens of Baltimore to know better why city jurors do what they do. Such an investigation would necessarily turn on case reviews: preparation by prosecutors, strength of evidence, police work, availability of witnesses, judicial action and so on. It would be a more exhaustive study than the one by Choice Research Associates, which reviewed only a sampling of Baltimore cases, compared with all jury trials in the three counties.

The issue of jury nullification has been a repeated concern of the criminal justice community. The Abell Foundation's draft report, according to The Sun's Julie Bykowicz, reinforced those concerns when it found that 43 percent of city defendants were acquitted, compared with 27 percent in the three counties. It's too soon to know if a regional jury system is the answer to the problems in the city.

Baltimore crime victims deserve to have their day in court, but they should also feel confident that justice will be served.

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