Sad tableaux play out in court

CRIME BEAT

  • A Baltimore City public schools police officer stands near the back entrance to William H. Lemmel Middle School last November, where a teenager was stabbed to death. This past Thursday, his accused attacker, then 14, admitted to killing the eighth-grader.
A Baltimore City public schools police officer stands near… (Baltimore Sun file photo…)
November 15, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

In two Baltimore courtrooms adjacent to the one occupied by Mayor Sheila Dixon - known here as defendant Sheila Ann Dixon - here's what happened on Thursday:

In one courtroom, Gregory Carmichael pleaded with a judge to get into a program to treat his addiction to alcohol, just one in a parade of substance abusers that morning seeking help instead of jail. In the other courtroom, a judge started picking a jury to try Charles Owens on charges that he shot a man four times in drug-infested Park Heights.

Taken together - the addict in Room 228, the mayor in Room 230 and the accused gunman in Room 234 - you come away with a sad tableau of our city's problems.

In separate but aligned courtrooms were allegations of City Hall corruption, arrogance and greed next to a volatile mix of murder, mayhem and drug abuse.

Dixon is a lifelong Baltimore resident, a former schoolteacher, a mother and a politician. Her pleas for a better city are heartfelt, the anger she feels when her city is maligned is genuine and the passion she expresses through programs she has championed is real.

The mayor, of course, is looking at a broad picture - end homelessness, curb drug use, curtail violence, promote honest government - and it's unfair to blame her for individual failures. But the courthouse is where people who fail end up, and now the mayor is here, charged with theft and misconduct in office, being tried in the same building and on the same floor as the junkies and the gunmen who bring so much despair to her city.

Dixon has a program to eliminate homelessness, and on the second day of jury selection in her trial, in the courtroom next to hers, a jury convicted a homeless man for plunging a knife into the throat of a homeless woman on Pratt Street, killing her in an argument over a piece of cardboard.

Dixon has praised efforts to reduce overdose deaths and combat drug abuse, and on Thursday, across the street at the Mitchell Courthouse, a man who has spent 37 of his 58 years in prison for drugs pleaded for help.

Thomas Hutchinson had just been arrested for allegedly smoking a joint on Holbrook Street, and he yelled at Judge Wanda K. Heard that the bust cost him a chance to redeem his misspent life.

"It's not easy to get out and go straight and do the right thing the first time," he said after interrupting the proceedings. "I'm going to make mistakes."

But treatment centers, noting his record, refused to admit him; and prosecutors, noting his record, wanted him to serve more time. Hutchinson said he's never gotten a break. "I've spent my life in adult prison, so there is nothing I've gotten away with."

He shouted. The judge shouted back. The well of the court filled with defendants waiting to plead guilty, some cuffed, some not.

Armed sheriff's deputies closed in as Hutchinson's voice grew louder, though bystanders barely paid attention. Defense lawyers waiting for their cases didn't look up from their files; a woman awaiting her turn never glanced up from her book, "Tears of a Tiger"; and another man fell asleep. The father of a teenager charged with killing a classmate chatted with a friend about fantasy football.

It was a cold day in November last year when Dixon stood outside William H. Lemmel Middle School and grieved over the loss of eighth-grader Markel Williams. She addressed the city with a motherly rather than a mayoral tone, a personal touch in the midst of tragedy, to say: "All I can think about is my son," who was about the same age as both suspect and victim.

On Thursday, right after Hutchinson had argued with Judge Heard, a lanky, boyish-looking Timothy Oxendine confessed to stalking and stabbing Markel Williams three times last year. Oxendine, who was 14 then, stood with his hands cuffed behind him, wearing a gray T-shirt, his hair braided and his voice a soft, almost indecipherable whisper.

"What did you do?" Judge Heard asked.

"I stabbed Markel Williams," he quietly answered, as casually as if he were telling his teacher he hadn't done his homework.

Back across the street, the judge overseeing the mayor's case called a lunch recess. As Dixon, her attorneys and others filed out of the building and into the rain to the reception of a small army of television cameras, the courtrooms on the second floor remained busy.

Judge Martin P. Welch sorted through a room full of potential jurors for an attempted-murder case, trying to send home those with real reasons why serving would cause hardship, and then realizing they'd been sitting on benches for nearly four hours. He released them for lunch, apologizing for the inclement weather, and reminded them, "I've told you little about this case, but what little I've told you can't discuss with each other or anybody else."

Two doors down, the alcohol-addicted Gregory Carmichael pleaded with Judge Marcella A. Holland for an outpatient drug treatment program.

But there was little the judge could do. He had violated his probation on a drug conviction, and private treatment centers didn't want him. "I'm out of options," she told him.

This time, to get the help he said he wanted, he'd have to attend a program in jail.

"Is that the best you can do?" Carmichael asked, before reluctantly accepting the offer.

"Good luck to you," Judge Holland told him.

She might as well have been talking to every defendant in the courthouse, the mayor included.

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