Campaign ad attacks Jessamy on witness protection issue

Former employee links Dawson firebombing death to state's attorney's office

August 23, 2010|By Justin Fenton and Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The defense attorney vying to be the city's top prosecutor released a television ad Monday in which a former state's attorney's office employee says "people are getting away with murder and it's because Patricia Jessamy fails to convict them." The commercial also links Jessamy's office with the deaths of seven people in a 2002 firebombing.

In addition, the ad features an image of an off-duty city police spokesman speaking to defense attorney Gregg Bernstein, which could raise more questions about the link between Bernstein's campaign and the police department.

DiTanya Madden, the former witness protection coordinator for the state's attorney's office, has spoken out previously about what she believes was a failure to protect the Dawson family, who died in a 2002 fire set after Angela Dawson testified against drug dealers.

Madden left the office in 2003 and declared that the family was never referred to her office for protection. Surviving relatives filed a $14 million lawsuit saying officials failed to adequately protect the family, but the suit was dismissed, with the Court of Appeals ruling that state and city officials were not liable for the deaths.

In the ad, Madden says, "We lost five children and their parents because the state's attorney's office mismanaged the program."

Prosecutors and police said at the time that the Dawsons had turned down protection because they did not want to move from their home. Because they declined, no application forms were filled out to get them into the witness protection program.

Marilyn Harris-Davis, a spokeswoman for Jessamy's campaign, said, "The Dawson tragedy was a horrific one that brought pain to the entire city of Baltimore. But it's well-documented that the family refused to leave their home."

Madden also says in the commercial that Jessamy is "an intelligent woman, she's sweet. She has a good heart. But Baltimore City doesn't need sweet. Baltimore city needs strong."

Bernstein's campaign said the commercial will begin airing on cable television and radio beginning Tuesday. In a news release, he said he plans to improve the witness protection program by proactively identifying high-risk victims, coordinating relocation efforts with other jurisdictions, and "more strategically and aggressively" pursuing federal grant funds.

The city has a limited budget for witness protection. Gloria E. Luckett, who holds Madden's former position, said the Baltimore Victim Witness Assistance Unit aided 197 families last year — up from 185 in 2008 — moving some and providing counseling or financial help for others, though the budget has shrunk. It's down to $300,000, Luckett said, from $500,000 a year ago.

"We manage that budget to the best or our abilities," Luckett said.

At the 22 second mark of the 30-second ad, Bernstein, who does not speak in the commercial, is shown conversing with Detective Kevin Brown, a police department spokesman. Brown is wearing a generic uniform with a "police" patch on the arm.

Jessamy earlier this month called for an independent investigation of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III after he said police needed a "true partner" in the state's attorney's office and placed Bernstein's red campaign signs in the front lawn of his Southwest Baltimore home. During a news conference, Jessamy accused Bealefeld of trying to get a "rubber stamp" prosecutor elected and said that his involvement raised issues about the "voting process."

Others, including Clerk of Court Frank Conaway and former NAACP president Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, raised questions about whether Bealefeld was attempting to influence officers and voters. But Jessamy backed down after Bealefeld removed the campaign signs.

Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said he and Bealefeld were aware that Brown was going to appear in the commercial, after Brown had asked for permission. Their only requirements were that Brown do the commercial on his own time and not use Baltimore Police equipment or uniforms.

"The facts are that Kevin Brown approached me as an individual, and he said he wanted to participate in the campaign," Guglielmi said. "We're a country founded on free speech, and we can't ignore the Constitution of the United States that allows people to engage in political activity."

Harris-Davis said the Jessamy campaign would not be making an issue of Brown's appearance.

"That's probably an administrative issue for them," she said. "We don't want to distract from the issues of the campaign."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com



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