In Baltimore, tragedy meets politics, like it or not

A high-profile crime, a suspect's record and the campaign for state's attorney

July 28, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Maybe politics has no place in criminal justice, and maybe politics has no place within earshot of the family of the victim of a senseless street killing, but this is 2010, and this is Baltimore. We have to elect the chief prosecutor here, like it or not. Patricia Jessamy is the incumbent state's attorney and she's going to be judged on her record, and her record is 15 years long. Her opponent has a lot of material to go over and to use against her.

And now, like it or not, her opponent has John Alexander Wagner.

Exploding in the middle of the campaign for state's attorney — a contest that materialized only a few weeks ago — is another sickening tragedy, this one a robbery and fatal stabbing in Charles Village on Sunday night. The victim was a 24-year-old Johns Hopkins researcher named Stephen Pitcairn.

The accused killer, John Alexander Wagner, has a long criminal record but not much in the way of jail time to show for it. He was accused as recently as April in a gas station knock-and-rob that was caught by a surveillance camera. Had the victim in that case agreed to testify, and had the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office not dropped the charge against him, Mr. Wagner might not have been walking the streets of Baltimore last weekend.

There's nothing political about that. Those are just the facts, and the fact of possibility: Had all conditions been correct for prosecution, it's quite possible John Wagner never would have met Stephen Pitcairn in Charles Village on Sunday night.

What makes the matter political is its timing — and the willingness of Mrs. Jessamy's opponent to use it against her.

This is an election year. Ms. Jessamy's opponent is not some District Court hustler looking to advertise his practice, but an attorney and former federal prosecutor named Gregg Bernstein, who thinks he can do the job better. He's a credible opponent.

Mr. Bernstein called a press conference to make John Wagner the new poster child for all that's wrong with criminal justice in Baltimore.

The death of Stephen Pitcairn "was not just senseless — but preventable," Mr. Bernstein says. Had Ms. Jessamy done her job, Mr. Bernstein says, "Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today."

Ms. Jessamy's reaction to this: "Shame on Gregg Bernstein for politicizing this tragedy!"

Her outrage at the outrage was pretty political too, I'd say.

In the ideal, politics has no place in criminal justice. But in Maryland, we elect chief prosecutors for the city and for the counties. So Ms. Jessamy has to run again, and when she campaigns this summer she'll tell voters about her record. She gets her say; her opponent gets his.

The death of Stephen Pitcairn is a terrible tragedy, and it's compounded by the record of his accused killer: numerous charges, not much jail time, judges giving him breaks, a victim refusing to testify, a warrant for Mr. Wagner's arrest stuck in a regional backlog of warrants estimated at 40,000.

Is all that Pat Jessamy's fault? Hardly. But it's an election year, and Mr. Bernstein says Ms. Jessamy could have done more. For one thing, he says, the state's attorney's office should have tried harder to get the witness against Mr. Wagner in the April gas station robbery to testify. "And there was other evidence," he says, "that could have been used in the form of video and the officers' own testimony."

Those who work within the criminal justice system would say that's all easier said than done — the earnest-sounding claims of a candidate trying to give his campaign some traction.

Criminal cases, those involved in them will tell you, are complicated and nuanced. Convictions are hard to get. Witnesses don't always cooperate. Juries don't always convict. Judges go soft when the state wants them to go hard. Prosecutors have to make decisions every day about which cases are worth taking to trial, which of them need a plea bargain, which should be dropped.

So, reasonable people are reluctant to blame any one person for the failings of a system that has been overloaded, if not overwhelmed, for years. That's one of the reasons why Mr. Bernstein has an uphill battle against Ms. Jessamy: the impression that she functions competently in a dysfunctional system.

But is that good enough? Are expectations high enough? Baltimoreans need to ask themselves if we haven't all become too understanding about how tough it is to run the state's attorney's office and to keep violent offenders from slipping through cracks. Is this the best anyone can do?

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail:

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