Getting judges to keep their promises

Two defendants, two judges and two outcomes when probation conditions were violated

August 30, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

John Wagner managed to squirm through the Baltimore city and county courts to remain a free man up to and through Sunday night, July 25. That's when he allegedly robbed Stephen Pitcairn and fatally stabbed the young Hopkins researcher. The Wagner case has raised several serious questions about the criminal justice system here — for one, whether enough Baltimore judges are willing to keep their promises.

"I better not see you back here for a violation of probation, because I will send you back to prison. That's a promise." I've heard variations of that admonition from judges to defendants numerous times. I've seen judges make good on their promises, shocking defendants who thought they'd catch another break. I've also seen judges give defendants additional chances, especially to drug addicts who appear to be making an effort to stay clean and catch the bus to their probation appointments.

But the case of John Wagner presents the kind of defendant, a violent one, who caught far more breaks than he deserved.

In 2008, he pleaded guilty to a vicious assault on his girlfriend. He received eight years in prison, but the entire sentence was suspended. Such suspensions are common in plea deals throughout Maryland, but they are conditional: Violate the terms of your probation and you could end up serving the whole sentence.

Placed on probation, Mr. Wagner violated its conditions four times, but there was no consequence for that — even though, at one point, city prosecutors and probation agents asked Judge John Addison Howard to give Mr. Wagner three years in prison.

"I will tell you, you do not want to be back here," Judge Howard warned Mr. Wagner.

That was in April.

The same month, Mr. Wagner was arrested, allegedly for attacking and robbing a man at a downtown gas station, an incident captured by a surveillance camera. The victim refused to give a sworn statement and prosecutors dropped the case.

Gregg Bernstein, the defense attorney challenging Patricia C. Jessamy for state's attorney in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, has claimed that Stephen Pitcairn might be alive today had prosecutors pursued the case despite the reluctant witness.

But you could also say the gas station knock-and-rob would not have occurred had Judge Howard sent Mr. Wagner to jail when he had the chance.

And Judge Howard wasn't the only one who had a crack at keeping Mr. Wagner off the street.

Last year, Baltimore County District Court Judge Philip N. Tirabassi sentenced him to two years for car theft, but that sentence, too, was suspended. Mr. Wagner was supposed to pay $300 restitution to the car's owner, but he didn't even do that. That was a violation of his probation. A warrant was issued for his arrest July 22.

That was just three days before Stephen Pitcairn was killed.

Let's look at another case, that of Maurice Robinson, 28 years old and, like Mr. Wagner, one of Baltimore's many convicted felons.

Nine years ago this month, he pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree murder and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence. A judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison but — here we go again — suspended all but 10 years.

Mr. Robinson served several years in one of Maryland's $26,000-a-year-per-person institutions. Upon release, he was placed on three years' probation.

He behaved himself for a while. But, alas, in June 2009, he failed to report to his probation officer. Circuit Court Judge Sylvester Cox gave Mr. Robinson two years in prison for that violation.

Mr. Robinson got out on June 7, after spending a year in the lockup.

Apparently, he went back to smoking dope right away. Three days after his release, he tested positive for marijuana. He failed to show up for a drug test June 22.

Judge Cox found Mr. Robinson guilty again, and this time he ordered him to pay the outstanding balance on his original debt to society — 13 years in the Division of Correction. That's where he is today.

So John Wagner got no jail time for violating the conditions of his probation four times, and Maurice Robinson got 13 years for violating his twice.

Thirteen years for smoking reefer?

You can say that's too harsh, and that the prisons are too crowded for such offenders, but the original crime was violent — as in the case of John Wagner — and what's the point of probation if judges aren't willing to make good on their promises?

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is

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