City's top prosecutor and challenger debate the issues

Sun scrutinizes claims made by candidates

August 12, 2010|By Tricia Bishop and Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore state's attorney candidate Gregg Bernstein and incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy met face to face in their first extended debate Thursday, frequently trading barbs.

During WYPR's "Midday with Dan Rodricks," Jessamy called Bernstein a liar, while he called her ineffective and isolated. The candidates in the Democratic primary also tossed out various claims and statistics to support their candidacy.

The Sun took a closer look at their claims and put them into context to see how they held up under scrutiny.

Statement: Bernstein repeated his claim that the Baltimore state's attorney's office "has the state's lowest conviction rate."

Analysis: The figures may say more about Baltimore jurors than prosecutors.

The claim is based on a 2008 Abell Foundation study and report that looked only at the disparity in outcomes of jury trials from 293 cases in Baltimore and the four surrounding counties from July 1, 2005, through Dec. 31, 2006. It found "substantially fewer guilty verdicts" from city jurors than county jurors during that time. In the city, 23 percent of those tried were found guilty, compared with 53 percent in Anne Arundel, 41 percent in Howard and 40 percent in Baltimore County.

The report concluded that city jurors are less likely than county jurors to convict a defendant, which has also been reported in The Sun. City residents often distrust police and the court system in general, biasing them toward defendants. They're more likely to hand out a not-guilty verdict in criminal cases, and, according to area attorneys, grant large awards in civil cases.

Abell gave a wide range of reasons for the disparity, including prosecutorial discretion, but also "variations in the economic, demographic and attitudinal differences among those in the eligible jury pool in these jurisdictions."

Statement: Jessamy countered Bernstein's claim with statistics of her own: Baltimore City is responsible for about 37 percent of the crime in the state of Maryland, but more than 60 percent of those committed to the Department of Corrections for terms longer than a year come from Baltimore.

Analysis: For fiscal years 2007 through 2009, Baltimore City prosecutors were responsible for sending more people to prison than any other jurisdiction: 63 percent of the inmate population in fiscal year 2007, followed by 60.5 percent and 59.3 percent respectively, according to annual reports from the Maryland Division of Correction.

It's unclear where the 37 percent figure came from, but using judiciary numbers from fiscal year 2009, Baltimore circuit and district courts handled and closed 30 percent of the state's criminal case load (a total of 86,888 cases out of 289,617).

The numbers themselves hold up, but Jessamy's claim implies that the high Baltimore commitment rates are the result of lots of successful prosecutions, relative to the percentage of crimes committed in the city. But her statement doesn't present the full picture because it doesn't take into account the types of crimes that occur here.

Crimes committed in Baltimore are more likely to be violent than in other jurisdictions, meaning they carry prison penalties, whereas nonviolent or property crimes in most other places in the state might not. The violent crime rate in the city is almost three times as high as the state's rate, according to statistics from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which means the prisons are more likely to be filled with Baltimore convicts.

Statement: Jessamy said on the show she initiated a project that spread across the country to team up with federal prosecutors on gun cases.

Analysis: Federal prosecutors have disputed this, assuming she's referring to the Baltimore Exile project, which began in 2006 and was modeled on a Richmond, Va., program that began officially in 1997.

But Baltimore had its own gun prosecution program starting in 1994. It was called "Project Disarm" and involved state and city prosecutors and investigators working with federal counterparts to get armed repeat offenders off the streets. It eventually merged into the Baltimore Exile program.

Jessamy was heavily involved in Project Disarm, but it began when she was still a deputy state's attorney in 1994, not after she became state's attorney in early 1995. It's also doubtful that the idea originated in Baltimore. A federal program called Project Triggerlock was initiated in April 1991 to prosecute criminals with guns at the federal level.

Statement: After Jessamy called herself a "technology queen," Bernstein pointed out that Baltimore assistant state's attorneys don't have work-issued BlackBerrys or voice mail on their office phones.

Analysis: Bernstein's right: The prosecutors don't have work-issued BlackBerrys, though most pay for and carry their own personal digital devices. The phone system is maintained by the city, and most in the offices don't have voice mail. Prosecutors point to a lack of funds.

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