Circumstances in case of Harris suspect are symptomatic of the system


November 19, 2008

Glance at Charles Y. McGaney's rap sheet, and you wonder why he wasn't in jail when police say he and two others shot and killed former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. outside a Northeast Baltimore jazz club.

* June 13: City prosecutors drop a drug charge because "laboratory report not available." The case involved 10 gel caps filled with a "powder substance" believed, but never proved, to be heroin.

* Aug. 5: Pleads guilty in Baltimore County to possessing a .40-caliber Glock handgun and is sentenced to jail for 85 days, the time he'd already served awaiting trial. He's released the same day.

* Sept. 16: Theft charges involving two stolen 17-inch chrome Cadillac tire rims are dropped after two city officers and the victim don't show up for trial.

Four days later, Harris was killed. And on Friday, 19-year-old McGaney and another man were charged with first-degree murder and other crimes.

McGaney's criminal resume shows an all-too-familiar series of missed opportunities, sloppy work, bureaucratic foul-ups, uncaring victims and uncooperative witnesses. In short, it's symptomatic of a beleaguered criminal justice system that has long struggled to keep pace with crime.

A young man convicted of a handgun charge for which he could have been imprisoned for two years serves fewer than three months, and now he's accused of killing a former councilman a few weeks after he walks out of jail. Sound painfully familiar?

But it's too easy to simply say McGaney should never have been on the street. As with all these cases, there is no smoking gun, but rather lingering smoke - problems that taken individually seem rather minor but viewed collectively spell failure. Here's a look at just one of his cases - the one involving the handgun.

On May 8, 2007, a woman in Parkville called police at 3:17 p.m. and said she saw a teenager wearing blue jeans, a white tank top and a dark-color shirt wrapped around his waist showing a handgun to a girl on Arbor Station Way.

An officer stopped McGaney - wearing blue jeans and a white tank top but no dark shirt - in a nearby alley.

He had no gun.

Officers and a dog searched the area, but again, according to the police report, "a weapon was not located."

At 4:07 p.m., a resident called 911 and said he found a gun in a trash can in an alley that McGaney had run through when confronted by police. A dark-colored shirt was found next to the can. The woman who had initially called 911 identified McGaney as the man she saw with the gun. He was charged with illegal handgun possession and faced two years in prison.

Kristin E. Blumer, the prosecutor, told Baltimore Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin how the case went downhill from there:

"There was a witness who told police she had seen him with a gun in his hand. But she moved out of state and was not available for the case. So that hampered the prosecution. She was the only one. No one else could put that gun in his hand. That was a problem. ... Possession is possession. It has to be in your hand or very close to your person. This, unfortunately, was beyond that framework. It didn't fit very well. If I had taken the case to trial, I don't know what would have happened."

To make matters worse, McGaney's fingerprints weren't on the gun.

McGaney was on probation for property destruction, and according to his lawyer at this week's bail hearing, he has no juvenile and no felony record, was enrolled in classes to earn a General Educational Development certificate and had a job at a thrift shop.

Blumer took what she could get - time served and an immediate release from jail in exchange for a guilty plea. I've seen cases with stronger evidence pleaded away for less.

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