Jessamy concedes state's attorney race

Bernstein poised to become Baltimore's new top prosecutor

September 17, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Patricia C. Jessamy, the longtime Baltimore prosecutor who has insisted that treatment and intervention programs were as important in fighting crime as courtroom trials, acknowledged Friday that she lost her re-election bid to a challenger who promised to get tougher on the city's most dangerous criminals.

Jessamy's concession came a day after a set of absentee ballots were counted, widening slightly the lead held by attorney Gregg Bernstein to 1,363 votes out of 60,000 cast. Despite raising questions earlier in the week about the accuracy of the count, her legal team, which is reviewing the voting results, is not expected to fight the outcome.

Surrounded by family, friends and employees, Jessamy, 62, called her quarter-century as a prosecutor, including 15 years in the top job, a "labor of love."

She promised to cooperate with Bernstein — who will not face a Republican opponent in the November election — on a "smooth transition," and said she would continue to work on improving the lives of young city residents.

"I am not going quietly into the night," Jessamy said. "I am a public servant by nature."

Bernstein said later that a formal transition would wait until after November. He said he would spend the next seven weeks winding down his practice as a criminal defense attorney.

Little known just a few weeks ago, Bernstein, 55, quickly mounted an aggressive challenge over the summer, capitalizing on anger over several high-profile crimes committed recently that resulted in arrests of people who had long criminal histories but had not served significant prison time.

"People of all races, ages and economic groups were ready for a change," he said Friday, promising to run the office with transparency and discretion.

Jessamy said she made the decision to concede in the morning, then spoke with her staff.

She called Bernstein shortly after, and, despite the fierce campaign battle that carried strong racial overtones and exposed rifts between police and prosecutors, had a "very pleasant" conversation. She described Bernstein's team as "very professional."

But even as she said she was stepping aside, she stuck by her beliefs about how the office should be run and evaluated.

She warned that Bernstein's emphasis on statistics, which helped him win, might hurt in the end. Bernstein has pledged to track prosecutors' conviction rates to measure performance, which Jessamy shunned, believing that it is an inadequate gauge and that it would encourage quotas.

"This obsession with numbers has to change," she said. "We need to see the senseless murders on the streets as individual lives lost, not numbers."

She said that after she leaves office, she would focus on a new program that works with young people through churches. "I'm committed to donating my time, my energy and my talents to making that initiative a success," she said.

A Mississippi native, Jessamy came to Baltimore with her husband and daughter in the early 1980s. She became an assistant state's attorney in 1985, then a division chief and one of two appointed deputies in 1987. She was appointed to the top prosecutor position in 1995, and won election in 1998 — and in the two elections after that.

But Bernstein appeared to tap into a deep vein of unrest.

His campaign may have been aided by a relatively low primary turnout. About 21 percent of registered Democrats voted, a figure that indicates that Jessamy could not mobilize the African-American voters who have supported her in the past. A third candidate, Sheryl A. Lansey, won just over 2,000 votes, and may have affected the outcome.

Bernstein, who has defended white-collar criminals, including former state Sen. Larry Young, who was acquitted of bribery and tax-evasion charges, promised a tougher approach to criminal prosecution. He pledged to focus on "fighting crime first" through aggressive prosecution of violent criminals. He even plans to try cases himself, though his role as state's attorney is largely one of management.

As top prosecutor, he will oversee about 220 lawyers, with a shrinking budget and a large workload — nearly 87,000 criminal cases were handled and closed in the 2009 fiscal year.

He will take over the agency with the full support of the Police Department — something Jessamy has rarely had, according to her critics. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III made a statement that the relationship was broken when he chose to put a Bernstein campaign sign in his yard, which he later removed. But he was quick to praise her Friday.

"The city has a debt of gratitude for Mrs. Jessamy's long service," Bealefeld said. "There is no doubt that she dedicated her soul to her job. … With that being said, I'm excited now to move forward."

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