Baltimore state's attorney fights for her job

Patricia Jessamy says the city needs her experience

September 11, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

When the question came during the debate — and how could it not, given the Canton locale — Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy started her answer on the defensive.

Without "blaming anyone else," an audience member asked, what happened in the Zach Sowers case?

Sowers was a newlywed in 2007 when teenagers attacked and robbed him — one boy beating him into a coma steps from his Patterson Park home. He died 10 months later, the case saddening and then infuriating the neighborhood.

Residents were upset when Jessamy's office cut plea deals with the attackers. And they were outraged when her spokeswoman later made insensitive remarks about the crime to a journalist, creating a backlash against Jessamy, who issued a statement at the time saying she would not discuss the heated matter. But at the August debate, in a church basement, Jessamy had to respond. She was fighting for her job.

"The individual who murdered Zach Sowers is serving 40 years in prison. He was convicted … even before Mr. Sowers died," she said plainly, and walked away from the microphone but returned to add more: "It was a horrific tragedy. That's all I can say."

She couldn't say what the audience wanted to hear — that she was wrong — because she didn't believe it. And Patricia Jessamy does not make statements just because they're expected, even during a campaign.

"She's just not cut out to be a politician. She's a lawyer," said Haven Kodeck, who has been a deputy state's attorney under Jessamy since 1995. But she knows "as an elected official that she has to go through the political process. She agonizes over it, I can tell you. This is not her."

During her 15 years in office, Jessamy has always been a somewhat reluctant public figure, though a frequent presence at community events. She says she prefers to devote her time to managing her office: battling for resources, developing crime prevention programs and fighting for tougher state laws.

Voters returned her to office three times after her 1995 appointment by the city's Circuit Court judges.

But this year, an opponent is giving Jessamy the toughest battle she's encountered.

In Tuesday's primary, Jessamy faces Gregg Bernstein, a high-profile defense attorney and fellow Democrat who seemed to come out of nowhere. He announced his candidacy late and quickly raised $289,000 in campaign funds to Jessamy's $82,000, according to finance records. (Sheryl A. Lansey, a 63-year-old attorney, is also on the primary ballot.)

And the Sowers case — along with the recent murder of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn, who was allegedly killed by a man Jessamy's office previously declined to prosecute — have become touchstones for critics who say the prosecutor's office is in dire need of change.

They want tougher lawyers who drop fewer cases, pursue more violent criminals and win more convictions. And they say the state's attorney should be leading the way.

Jessamy is pushing back, taking a firm stance during debates and buying costly media ads. She made a personal loan of $100,000 to her own campaign last month in order to pay for the commercials. The one thing she won't do is back down from her point of view, supporters said, no matter how heavy the criticism or unpopular the choice.

"She does not, will not, and will never, bend to public sentiment," Kodeck said. "She does the right thing for the right reasons. She is a woman of principle."

The prosecutor and the police

Baltimore's violent crime rate has been dropping, but it's still one of the deadliest cities in the country, and Jessamy's office is scrutinized as a key component of criminal justice, along with police, judges and the corrections system.

She frequently points a finger at police, who counter that they are blamed unfairly when cases are lost or not brought to trial. Police say she should take more responsibility for the shortcomings of prosecutors.

While individual officers and lawyers often get along, there remains long-standing tension between the two agencies. It came to a head this year when Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III chose to back her challenger.

The agencies are so interconnected that it's hard to tell where the efforts of one succeed and the other fails.

Bernstein has been citing figures from a juror study to claim that Jessamy's office has the lowest conviction rate in the state. Jessamy and others consider the data flawed; a small sample of cases in a handful of areas was examined.

Bernstein and his supporters also say Jessamy drops many cases too quickly. A recent review by The Baltimore Sun of city data shows that prosecutors abandoned nearly 3 in 10 of the more serious, nonfatal gun cases for unidentified reasons.

The analysis also shows that the prosecutor's office won convictions in fewer than half of those nonfatal gun cases that were resolved last year.

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