The teenager charged in the daylight abduction of a man from in front of his Guilford home this week is on probation for robbing a woman at knifepoint in the same North Baltimore neighborhood in 2008, a crime for which he served just one year in prison, according to court records.
On June 18, a Circuit Court judge agreed to a deal struck between a prosecutor and a public defender in which John Couplin pleaded guilty to one count of robbery with a deadly weapon and a sentence of 10 years in prison.
But the agreement also called for the judge to suspend eight years, 11 months and 10 days of the prison term. As a result, Couplin walked free that day, having already served his 386-day sentence between the time he had been arrested and his final day in court. Judge John Addison Howard placed Couplin, now 19, on three years' probation.
Couplin lives just two blocks from the scene of this week's abduction; he is also charged in the Jan. 6 armed robbery of three women in the 300 block of Suffolk Road in the same neighborhood.
Couplin was charged twice last year with violating the terms of his release in the 2008 robbery. He was accused in September of shoplifting from a Macy's in Towson and in December of trespassing in the city. He was released on $500 bail and has a violation-of-probation hearing scheduled Jan. 29.
Repeat offenders have been a source of concern for residents and law enforcement for years, raising questions about Baltimore's judicial system.
At a meeting in Guilford on Thursday night, residents, scared and angry over the abduction and the earlier attack also linked to Couplin, complained about leniency in the courts.
"Where's the state's attorney's office?" resident Patrick Sheridan shouted. "When are we going to start holding Pat Jessamy's feet to the fire and hold her accountable?"
When informed that police had arrested a suspect, Sheridan replied, "And he'll be back on the streets."
On the afternoon of May 23, 2008, Couplin confronted a woman in the 300 block of Southway, two blocks south of the scene of Tuesday's abduction, threatened her with a 6-inch knife and said, "Give me your money," according to court records.
She handed him her purse containing $292, and he ran away as she screamed. He was arrested and pleaded guilty as part of the deal that set him free in June.
In an interview Friday, Judge Howard said the deal, which included the terms of the sentence, was binding between the prosecutor and public defender, and if Howard rejected it, the case would have been set for trial on an already overcrowded docket.
The judge said he accepted the terms based on the information he had.
"If I had to consider what somebody is going to think about this, that's not doing my job," Howard said. "I have to go with the information I had when this was done. If I were provided with the benefit of hindsight, I'd bat 100 percent, and so would other judges.
"We're human," Howard said. "The system is operated by humans. The fact is, there are recidivists. There are also people I expect to come back before me who don't come back."
Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said the prosecutor had no choice but to offer a deal with little prison time because the only evidence in the 2008 robbery was the victim's identification from a photo array. And Burns said a detective included the suspect's picture in the array only because he thought he recognized Couplin from a previous case.
Courts have been reluctant to convict based solely on witness identifications because they've been found to be unreliable. Burns called the police case "minimal."
"There was no evidence gathered from the crime scene that could link the suspect to the crime," Burns said. "The likelihood of securing a conviction at trial was very slim. ... The photo array was based in part on the investigators' thought about who might have done the crime."
The plea deal, Burns said, "was the only way to secure a conviction."
The Baltimore Sun has viewed court documents that show the suspect had been arrested 17 times on juvenile charges since 2005 and has two juvenile convictions for armed robbery.
Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi blamed the light sentence in the 2008 mugging on a system failure, and he called on all three branches of law enforcement - judicial, prosecutorial and police - to do a better job.
"We are well aware that we have our own fleas, ticks and moles to deal with," Gugliemli said. "We get that. It's our responsibility to make sure detectives investigate to the best of their ability and we present perfect cases to the state's attorney.
"But in this case, the system didn't work," he said. "There were clear signs that this individual had a criminal history. He's a repeat offender for the same crime, and now here we are again in 2010. ... We're recycling the same people here."