If there was any doubt that Baltimore's legal system is a miserable failure, it should have been put to rest with what we've learned about the murder of Stephen Pitcairn. Late Sunday evening, a day away from his 24th birthday and just back from a visit to his sister in New York, he was walking up St. Paul Street from the train station to his Charles Village apartment. As he walked, he talked on the phone with his mother, Gwen, of Jupiter, Fla., who heard him being accosted, heard a male voice say, "Shut up," and listened as her son was stabbed in the chest despite having turned over his money to his alleged killers.
Having one's child murdered is a horror beyond imagining for most of us. Talking with him as it happened is unimaginably worse. Mrs. Pitcairn spoke later to a television news reporter, relating how her son wanted to become a doctor so he could be of help to people with cancer, how bright he was, with a sunshine personality. As you know, that wasn't just a loving mom's opinion; the people for whom and with whom he worked as a researcher at Johns Hopkins corroborated the mother's assessment of her son's character and disposition.
He was filled with "promise," a promise never to be fulfilled because, according to police reports I have beside me as I write, two career lowlifes, "identified as Levelva Wagner (f/b/5-26-86, /ak/a 'Lee-Lee,' and John Wagner (m/b/4-19-76), a/k/a 'Yah-ya'" were out looking to rob somebody, a practice apparently routine to them. The two were arrested with Stephen Pitcairn's wallet and cell phone in their possession. They are being held without bail. And the blame game has begun, because once again a tragic crime has been committed, allegedly by someone whose past criminal behavior should have seen him removed from society and caged behind bars and barbed wire. This duo, to quote a Baltimore Sun story from Wednesday morning, "have lengthy criminal histories and have been passing through the region's justice system for years, seemingly without repercussion."
Mr. Wagner, according to this newspaper's reports, was found guilty of viciously assaulting his then-girlfriend two years ago, was sentenced to eight years in prison and had the sentence suspended — every single day of it. In April, closed-caption TV images caught him and an accomplice yoking a man at a downtown gas station. Charges were dropped when the victim refused to further cooperate. He's repeatedly been hauled into court for probation violations and each time been turned loose with no change in the terms of his supervision. As for the woman, she was on probation before being charged in this crime and has at least five prior convictions. As one might suppose, they are, according to court records, drug addicts. She is quoted as saying she and her husband (there's some question as to whether they are legally married) had been out Sunday night "hunting to rob someone" and telling witnesses that they had robbed and "hurt" a "white boy."
Talking about this fatal incident on my show, we asked who listeners would blame for the system's chronic misplaced leniency. Would it be the city's state's attorney, Patricia Jessamy, and her office, the police, or the judges who turn predators back onto the streets so quickly? The one most to blame, in this unscientific sampling, was Ms. Jessamy, who is seen as being much too soft on crime and criminals. Her spokeswoman, Margaret Burns, went on the air to blame the judges and also suggested the police could do a better job of investigating certain crimes. Judges were castigated by many of our listeners as well, while the police are mostly seen as being diligent in arresting criminals and then being betrayed, if you will, by ineffectual prosecutors and soft-headed judges.
While there's no doubt the system is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the criminals it must deal with — tens of thousands of warrants are outstanding — it is clear enough that many murders could have been prevented if more violent predators who've been gaming the system could be effectively prosecuted and put away. But we know, sadly, that as things stand now, that isn't going to happen.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.