City police union head seeks investigation of judge

August 29, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

The city police union is calling on the chief of the District Court to prevent a Baltimore judge from conducting bail review hearings after he released on bail last month a man accused of murder.

Paul M. Blair Jr., president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he wants Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn to investigate the actions of District Judge Nathan Braverman, who released Demetrius Smith on $350,000 bail July 11 after Smith was charged with murder. Smith was arrested and charged Sunday with shooting a 56-year-old man during a robbery.

"The system has to protect the citizens of Baltimore, and when it fails like this and you get a brand-new victim, for sure the citizens were not protected," Blair said. "It's frustrating to police officers who did the hard work to get this guy charged."

The decision to allow Smith to post bail has drawn criticism; it is highly unusual for a defendant charged with first-degree murder to be allowed to post bond. A bail commissioner had ordered Smith held without bail after his arrest in the fatal shooting, and prosecutors requested that decision be upheld.

According to a recording of the bail review hearing, Braverman lamented that there was scant information provided in the charging documents that accuse Smith of shooting Robert Long twice in the head, execution-style, on March 24.

He described eyewitness accounts as "notoriously terrible" when told Smith was identified through witnesses and a photo array, and he noted that Detective Steve Hohman had written in charging documents that the motive was unknown.

"You've got to understand, you're asking a judge to make a decision on somebody's liberty based on skeletal allegations," Braverman told prosecutors. "If [detectives] are convinced this is the guy and want to keep him off the streets, you've just got to give us more."

Pre-trial services said Smith, 25, had a previous conviction for drug possession with intent to distribute and had been cited for failing to appear in court on one occasion. His defense attorney said he did not have a history of violent crimes and should be released on "any bail," though she did not specify a figure, according to a recording of the hearing.

Blair said many witnesses are assured that the person they agree to testify against will be in jail and unable to harm them. Allowing the suspects to be released could further scare already skittish witnesses who are crucial to a successful prosecution, he said.

He asked Clyburn to "ensure that Judge Braverman understands his obligation to protect the citizens of Baltimore City from violent criminals before he is allowed to conduct further reviews.

"The citizens of Baltimore deserve better," Blair said.

Through a spokesman, Clyburn declined to comment, saying: "Judges have very broad discretion in determining bail, and because it is a pending case, it would be inappropriate to comment."

Jerome LaCorte, chief attorney in the public defender's office at Central Booking and Intake Center, said that while releasing people charged with first-degree murder is rare, he believes it should not be a foregone conclusion that they be held without bond.

"If an individual is held on no bail, they live at Baltimore City jail until their trial, which in many cases can be more than a year, and during that time the person has no liberty. The person is in jail and has to wait for a jury to vindicate them," LaCorte said. "It's not a good thing for the judiciary to abdicate its responsibility under law to look at the nature of the evidence against a defendant just because the state says this is a first-degree murder case."

But former city prosecutor Page Croyder, who criticized Smith's release last month in a blog, said bail review hearings are not the forum to vet evidence. She noted that judges often remind defendants that for the purpose of a bail review, judges must assume that the allegations against them are true.

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