The Baltimore police officer left court one morning last week, grabbed breakfast at a diner on Howard Street and took a spin through Remington. He had heard that a man had escaped conviction on his third arrest for murder, and the cop wanted to see if he was rebuilding his drug business.
That's when he saw David L. France.
The 53-year-old was sitting on the steps of a house on Miles Avenue, a narrow block of drooping rowhouses and vacant lots filled with old refrigerators and washing machines.
Last year, France pleaded guilty to armed robbery for forcing a woman at knifepoint to withdraw $100 from a bank machine on North Charles Street in Charles Village. The judge had sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
The police officer screeched his patrol car to a halt.
"This is the kind of disaster we're having to deal with," the cop told me. "I don't know who these guys are getting back out. He's only a block from Charles Village. … There has to be some sort of truth in sentencing."
France got out of prison because the judge agreed to a deal to suspend 14 years, two months and 12 days of the sentence. That meant France walked out of jail the day of the hearing, Jan. 21, 2009, after having served the 9 months and 18 days he'd spent jailed since his arrest.
By the time this police officer spotted him on Miles Avenue, France had been free 18 months. He's been arrested in June 2009 on a charge of disorderly conduct that prosecutors didn't pursue. He has had no probation violations, though he's on supervision until 2013.
The judge who sentenced France is John Addison Howard.
He is the same Circuit Court judge who in 2009 suspended eight years, 11 months and 10 days of a 10-year sentence for a man who held up a woman at knife-point in Guilford. Prosecutors said they were forced to offer the deal because police didn't conduct a thorough investigation; police said they gave prosecutors the strongest case possible.
That man was charged in a January crime spree in Guilford that included the abduction of a man who was forced to withdraw money at bank machines on York Road.
And Howard is the same Circuit Court judge who suspended the entire eight-year sentence of a man convicted of beating his girlfriend in 2008, and who didn't give that man additional jail time even after he violated his probation four separate times.
That man was later charged with killing Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn on a Charles Village street.
Though judges can reject plea deals, they rarely do so, and they typically press for quick resolutions to avoid time-consuming trials. Prosecutors often say they are forced to plead cases with little prison time because cops bring in weak evidence, or victims and witnesses refuse or are too scared to testify.
The blame game spares few.
The police officer who was stunned to see France sitting on his steps was quick to target the judges. He couldn't allow me to use his name because he's not authorized to talk without permission from the department's spokesman.
But his statements were similar in tone and substance to that of his boss, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who fired off his own verbal blasts at a vigil on St. Paul Street for the Hopkins researcher:
"We're sorry we failed," he told a crowd. "We're sorry we failed to protect you."
But, he added, "I'm going to accept my responsibility and challenge myself about what we could've done better. But I want to hear from a lot of other people."
He meant judges and prosecutors and witnesses and victims. Of the people his cops have arrested recently, the commissioner said, "These people should not have been on the streets. We've got to get everybody behind this."
Added State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden: "Something's wrong with this criminal justice system."
Every crime, every case, every defendant has a unique story. Though legislators set the penalties for crimes, judges are expected to exercise their discretion and, according to University of Maryland law professor Michael Millemann, weigh "an extraordinary array of factors that will either suggest the defendant should get the full sentence or whether something less is appropriate."
Millemann noted that suspended sentences are tools for a judge to "hold something over their heads" so defendants go to drug treatment or get jobs, "to try and change the defendant's conduct." But, of course, the professor noted, "that assumes the conditions of the probation will be enforced."
So did France stay in prison long enough for holding up a woman at knife-point?
Many would say no.
But his adult record is tame compared to others. He spent time in jail for unauthorized taking of a motor vehicle, using drugs and theft. The attack in Charles Village on March 29, 2008, is his first conviction for a violent crime.