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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

Statement: Jessamy has said a vote for Bernstein is a vote for "rubber stamp" oversight of police misconduct; Bernstein said he couldn't think of a "single instance in which she has successfully prosecuted a police officer."

Analysis: Bernstein says a better working relationship with police will not result in unfettered police misconduct.

A review of cases brought against police shows that prosecutors have won few significant punishments, but the reasons are complicated — evidence has gone missing, police investigations have been flawed, convictions have been overturned by higher courts or, more commonly, cases have been pleaded out in exchange for the officers agreeing to quit.

Jessamy's office dropped corruption charges against Officer Brian Sewell in 2001, a case made infamous after then-Mayor Martin O'Malley fumed that she didn't have the "guts" to try the case. Evidence went missing in a burglary at police headquarters, and charges against the officer accused of stealing files were also dropped.

One of the highest-profile cases related to a Southwest District unit accused of becoming a rogue operation implicated in a rape. Ultimately, one officer was acquitted of rape, criminal charges against others were dropped and the city approved a settlement and issued a rare apology to two of the officers.

Jessamy chose not to prosecute Charles M. Smothers, accused of shooting a man outside Lexington Market, and a grand jury would not indict a Housing Authority officer who shot an unarmed teen.

Most recently, Officer Tommy Sanders was acquitted by a jury in the shooting of an unarmed man in the back, and a jury acquitted an officer in an off-duty assault outside a barbershop. Officer Patrick Dotson, who fired his weapon outside a Canton bar, received 10 years with 18 months suspended.

Charges are pending against three officers accused of kidnapping and abandoning a teen in Howard County, while misconduct charges against an officer charged in a sting operation were dropped because of inconsistencies in the police investigation.

Statement: Bernstein said cases flagged by the War Room, a program created to track major offenders, have a conviction rate of 35 percent.

Analysis: Bernstein cites the findings of a report funded through an Abell Foundation grant and compiled by former War Room chief Page Croyder, who retired in 2008. Croyder is also Jessamy's chief antagonist and a frequent, often scathing, critic who says Jessamy's commitment to the effort waned and was whitewashed in official assessments.

Croyder's report was based on a review of the criminal histories of about 10 percent of more than 8,200 violent repeat offenders. It found that offenders in the program were convicted 35 percent of the time and that judges and parole commissioners revoked the probation and parole barely more than a third of the time, despite new convictions.

In a statement, Jessamy's office said that it was "based on a small sample of old cases which yielded unreliable data" and that conclusions can't be drawn about effectiveness without reviewing cases individually.

"To have a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, the study would have had to include a case by case analysis with the specific prosecutor who handled the case, and who was in the position to weigh all the factors necessary in order to arrive at the final result," the statement said.

Statement: Bernstein said prosecutors dropped 80 percent of domestic violence cases in 2009.

Analysis: The claim refers to misdemeanor cases handled in the 2009 fiscal year and was based on reports generated by the Maryland District Court, which the Bernstein campaign provided. Indeed, the reports showed that 80 percent of such cases were dropped in 2009 (though there were no comparisons to other jurisdictions). Prosecutors have repeatedly claimed that raw data fail to take into account the intricacies of why a case falls apart, that many victims invoke spousal privilege or that patrol officers who handle cases fail to gather sufficient evidence. Some cases are also placed on the "inactive" docket — effectively dropped — following participation in the domestic violence programs ordered by the court.



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