A preventable tragedy

Our view: Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn's murder points up the failures of a system that allows too many violent repeat offenders to slip through the cracks

August 01, 2010

The first question to be asked about the murder of Stephen Pitcairn, the promising young Johns Hopkins researcher who was robbed and stabbed to death last week as he walked home from Penn Station to Charles Village, is also the hardest to answer: How did John Alexander Wagner, the violent repeat offender whom police accuse of committing the crime, come to be allowed to roam the streets at all?

Although homicide and violent crime in Baltimore City generally have been falling in recent years, incidents like the killing of Mr. Pitcairn are a frustrating reminder of the failure of the criminal justice system to prevent convicted violent felons like Mr. Wagner from continuing to commit crimes that shock the conscience of the community.

It's not for lack of trying. Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III has made getting "bad guys with guns" off the streets his department's top priority. Similarly, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has focused on prosecuting the violent repeat offenders who commit most of the serious crimes in the city.

Meanwhile, Baltimore judges sentence thousands of defendants to jail time every year, and the city has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation. Yet dangerous offenders like Mr. Wagner still manage to slip through the cracks to wreak more mayhem.

The fault for this doesn't lie with any one agency or department, though there's plenty of blame to go around, and officials too often resort to finger-pointing to deflect criticism of their own performance.

Police blame prosecutors for failing to win convictions, while prosecutors complain that police often fail to gather evidence they need to take a case to trial. And judges who release suspects because witnesses refuse to testify or victims drop their charges come in for criticism from both sides.

All these problems are evident in the tangled trail of bad decisions and missed opportunities that led up to Mr. Wagner's being on the street last week instead of behind bars.

Mr. Wagner had a history of arrests dating back to the 1990s for crimes that included assault, armed robbery, auto theft and domestic violence. At the time of the Pitcairn killing, he was out on probation for the brutal 2008 beating of a former girlfriend, and as recently as April he was charged with a robbery and assault at a downtown gas station. Both Mr. Wagner and his alleged accomplice in the Pitcairn case, Lavelva Merritt, also have a string of convictions for drug-related offenses.

Yet as The Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported last week, Mr. Alexander has spent remarkably little time in jail or prison over the years, despite the seriousness of his offenses. Court records in Baltimore City and Baltimore County show that he never received anything more than what amounted to time served, even after violating his probation repeatedly.

Transcripts of his court appearances suggest that he portrayed himself as a remorseful defendant who simply had made a mistake and was trying to do better. In each case, he was able to persuade a judge to give him one more chance, despite prosecutors' pleas to keep him incarcerated.

Mr. Wagner's arguments were strengthened by weaknesses in the cases against him that he skillfully exploited and may even have helped engineer. The penalty for the domestic violence charge lodged by the former girlfriend, for example, was reduced to probation and time served because the victim changed her story and refused to testify, possibly because she had been threatened.

Similarly, Akil Meade, the man police say Mr. Wagner robbed and assaulted in April, also refused to appear in court; prosecutors believe he feared it might come out that he was engaged in illegal activity when the incident occurred.

Prosecutors could have compelled him to appear by obtaining a so-called "body attachment" from the court, but because police had failed to tape the initial interview in which he named Mr. Wagner as his assailant, they concluded there was little chance a judge would issue the order.

Finally, there were the judges in Baltimore City and Baltimore County who could have sent Mr. Wagner back to jail each time he appeared before them for violating his parole. Yet, despite the seriousness of the crimes the defendant was charged with — a car theft in the county and two assaults in the city — he was let go with the admonition not to sin again.

Had those judges heeded the warnings of prosecutors and police; had the police taped Mr. Meade's interview implicating Mr. Wagner in the April robbery so that prosecutors could have compelled the witnesses' appearance in court; had prosecutors pursued the domestic violence, robbery and assault charges without the victims' testimony and still managed to win at least one of the cases — had all those things happened, it's very possible Mr. Pitcairn might still be alive today.

That none of these thing happened is indicative of how deeply rooted the problems of the justice system really are. The result is that while the jails and prisons are overflowing with low-level drug offenders and people convicted of nuisance crimes, too many of the most violent repeat offenders are still walking the streets.

For all the progress that has been made in reducing crime rates in the city, this is a problem Baltimore finally needs to get ahold of, not through finger-pointing and blame games but by getting all the elements of the criminal justice system — police, prosecutors, judges and prison officials — to better coordinate their activities so that the city doesn't have to endure still more senseless tragedies like the murder of Stephen Pitcairn.

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