Mark P. Cohen

As Baltimore's top homicide prosecutor, he helped take many hundreds of killers off the streets of the city

January 20, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Mark P. Cohen, who as Baltimore's top homicide prosecutor helped take many hundreds of killers off the city's streets, died Sunday of cancer at Stella Maris Hospice. He was 62.

The Mount Washington resident, chief of the homicide division in the Baltimore state's attorney's office, battled melanoma for about a decade but had taken a turn for the worse in recent months.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said Mr. Cohen tried some of her office's most difficult cases, including those involving the death penalty and those involving police officers.

"He really and truly gave his entire life to public service. He had professionalism, dignity, anything anyone would want in an employee," Jessamy said. "Police loved him. Prosecutors loved him. Judges trusted and respected him."

Maj. Terry McLarney, commander of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit, said Mr. Cohen would start each workday by stopping off to talk with detectives about cases. And when there was a major development overnight - such as a shooting involving a police officer - it was Mr. Cohen who would get the call at 3 a.m., McLarney said.

"He never seemed upset when we would call him," the major said. "He was like the 24-hour advice line for us.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Cohen graduated from City College before attending the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland Law School.

Cheryl R. Cohen, his wife of 22 years, said that while he was in law school he worked for his uncle, Morris Glass, in the Sam Glass & Sons men's clothing store. She said his uncle wanted him to take over the business, but Mr. Cohen had other ambitions.

"My husband always wanted to be a prosecutor," Mrs. Cohen said. "He was all about justice."

After working for about a year with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Cohen landed a job at the Baltimore state's attorney's office in 1975 - where he would remain the rest of his life.

Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory, who once was Mr. Cohen's supervisor, said that about 1986, Mr. Cohen became one of three assistant state's attorneys in what was then known as the violent crimes division.

During that time, Mr. Cohen took on some of the most high-profile homicide prosecutions in Baltimore, including the "black widow" case of Geraldine Parrish, who married several older men and later had them killed to get their insurance benefits.

It was a difficult case, with twists and turns such as the exhumation of a suspected victim that turned out to be the wrong corpse. In his 1991 book Homicide, former Sun reporter David Simon recounted Mr. Cohen's role in observing the procedure along with homicide detective Donald Waltemeyer.

"Pale and wire-thin, with spectacles and curly blond locks, Cohen looks like an innocent straight man standing next to the side of beef that is Waltemeyer," Mr. Simon wrote. Describing Mr. Cohen's discomfort with the gruesome task, Mr. Simon added that "Cohen is a good man, among the best of the city prosecutors, and Waltemeyer can't think of a better trial attorney for the sprawling colossus that began as the Geraldine Parrish murder-for-hire case."

In 1989, Mr. Cohen won a conviction in the case, for which the former voodoo priestess was sentenced to life in prison.

Major McLarney said police in the homicide unit thought of Mr. Cohen as a "fearless" lawyer who would prosecute their cases vigorously, no matter whom he was up against. Homicide detective Kirk Hastings said the rank and file shared that respect for Mr. Cohen - even when he made decisions that went against an officer. "He would never maliciously prosecute anyone, nor would he cover anything up," Detective Hastings said.

In late 1996, Mr. Cohen became head of the homicide division - a job in which he supervised about 20 attorneys who handled most prosecutions. But in some especially sensitive cases, such as the 2006 prosecution of a correctional officer in the stomping death of an inmate at Central Booking, Mr. Cohen would still take the leading role in the courtroom.

Donald J. Giblin, Mr. Cohen's deputy and a co-worker for more than 30 years, said his boss didn't want to leave such cases to young prosecutors whose careers could be hurt by the ill will they engendered.

"He would do the cases nobody else would want," Mr. Giblin said.

Judge John Prevas, chief of the city Circuit Court, said Mr. Cohen could have made much more money by taking a job at a law firm. But he chose to make the state's attorney's office his career.

"He was just so into prosecuting homicides. That was what he cared about," Judge Prevas said.

Services for Mr. Cohen will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Bros. Inc., 8900 Reisterstown Road, with burial to follow at Beth El Memorial Park in Randallstown.

In addition to his wife, the former Cheryl Rollins, Mr. Cohen is survived by his daughter, Maris Cohen, a student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and a sister, Carolyn Rosenfeld of Arlington, Va.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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