Fearful witnesses, juror doubts work against cases

Baltimore Crime Beat

August 29, 2008|By PETER HERMANN | PETER HERMANN,peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Darryl Neal pleaded guilty to having a loaded handgun in his maroon Acura in South Baltimore's Curtis Bay neighborhood. Maurice Turner pleaded guilty in connection with a shooting that left two men injured in Park Heights.

Both suspects had initially been charged with crimes that carried hefty sentences - five years without the possibility of parole for Neal and life in prison for Turner. Both got plea deals and ended up serving far less time. Neal was sent home on 30 months' probation and Turner is in prison for five years.

The reasons prosecutors had to accept pleas in those cases - questionable police conduct and uncooperative witnesses - are at the crux of a debate that has long raged through the city and gained even more prominence with the emergence of an Abell Foundation report that publicized what everyone already knew: Convictions are easier in the suburbs than in Baltimore.

The cases involving Neal and Turner are contained in a series of documents detailing the work in June of the city state's attorney's office's gun prosecution division, the Firearms Investigation Violence Enforcement unit. They show that 24 suspects that month pleaded guilty to charges involving shootings or guns, or both, and juries found an additional six guilty. Juries found 12 not guilty.

Other cases didn't go very far.

Seven people had their cases dropped or jail terms lowered because prosecutors deemed searches by police questionable or illegal. Authorities were unable to locate victims or witnesses in four cases. Twice, victims and witnesses refused to help. Two cases were dismissed because either the defendant or his wife was dying.

A police officer was deemed unfit to testify in one case, didn't show up in another and wrote the wrong name of the person he arrested in a police report in a third.

The cases involving Turner and Neal seemed simple.

Plainclothes officers stopped Neal's car in 2006 after saying it was blocking traffic on Hazel Street in South Baltimore. Neal didn't have a driver's license, and an officer said when he ordered the suspect and two passengers out of the car, he saw the grip of a handgun "protruding from the rear pouch of the seat." The Markarov .380-caliber handgun was loaded with seven bullets.

Defense attorney Bryan A. Mobley didn't question whether his client had a gun. He said he questioned whether Neal's car really was blocking traffic. If it wasn't, then the stop would be illegal, the gun would be excluded as evidence and the state would have to drop the charges. Mobley said prosecutors decided not to risk a hearing and offered a deal to salvage a conviction.

Would a suburban prosecutor be so quick to all but give up on this case? Would a judge or jury in Howard County be more likely than a judge or jury in the city to believe the cops were right?

If this happened in Baltimore County, would Neal be spending five years in prison without the chance of parole instead of sitting in his living room for 30 months' probation and home detention?

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has noted distrust of law enforcement as a significant factor in jury decisions and in the prosecution of criminal suspects. But there are other problems as well.

Turner was arrested in May last year after he ran from a shooting at Park Heights Avenue and Cold Spring Lane. Two men were wounded, including one shot in the shoulder, hand, elbow, arm, leg and side. Police said they recovered a .38-caliber handgun. The man who was shot the most times told the first officer who arrived that the gunman was wearing a pink shirt. Police said the man they chased threw a gun and a pink shirt into some brush.

But that victim later changed his mind about helping. A note from a prosecutor in the court file notes, "He wouldn't testify out of concerns for the safety of his family."

Sadly, these problems are not unique. The citizens mistrust the police and are scared of one another. And until that changes, plea deals, dropped cases, not guilty verdicts and sentences of probation rather than prison time will be part of the city's landscape.

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