New state's attorney will face a flood of challenges

A change at the top could prompt changes throughout the criminal justice system

September 18, 2010|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Defendant after shackled defendant rises before the judge, who in the space of mere minutes determines that this one will remain in jail to await trial, or that one will get sprung on bail. Despite the variety of charges that landed them here — assault with hot soup or a shard of glass, stalking by Facebook, the garden-variety disorderly conducts and destructions of property — they soon become a nearly undistinguishable line of sleepy, mostly silent men and women whose cases are not so much heard as processed.

It is the bottom of the criminal justice system: the bail review hearing for the recently arrested that takes place every day at the Central Booking and Intake Center in downtown Baltimore. With change afoot at the highest levels of the justice system — after 15 years, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has been ousted by defense lawyer Gregg Bernstein — those who follow crime and punishment in the city are watching to see how the shake-up at the top will ripple down through the system.

Bernstein won the Democratic primary election last week on a campaign for tougher prosecution in the wake of several highly publicized murders, with one charge in particular resonating above others: Jessamy had let too many violent offenders go free through the revolving door of the criminal justice system, putting them back on the streets to commit ever more serious crimes.

But with the hot lights of politics dimmed, now comes the day-in, day-out juggling of cases in the busy prosecutor's office in one of America's most crime-ridden big cities.

The campaign could focus on systemic issues such as conviction rates or headline-grabbing murders such as that of young Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn. But the greater weight bearing down on Baltimore's next state's attorney, judicial observers say, comes on the ground floor, from places like Central Booking.

It is there that prosecutors fight crime at the retail level, confronting questions of which cases to dismiss, which to plea-bargain, which to take to trial in hopes of conviction — with the ever present fear that the wrong decision will come back to haunt them. One mistake, or a series of them, and a John Wagner — the repeat offender accused of killing Pitcairn — is on the street instead of behind bars.

"I think the community has lost faith in the criminal justice system in general," Bernstein said Friday. "The community has been frustrated with the revolving door… that puts people who commit crimes back on the street."

He said he plans to start tracking the office's conviction rate as a measure of its effectiveness, and enlist everyone — from police to the public defender's office to judges and residents — to make the streets safer.

Even an hour spent in the Central Booking courtroom, though, gives a sense of the mountain of cases that prosecutors must confront and wrestle into some sort of order. Seventeen cases came up in that single hour, with all the players pretty much assuming their assigned roles: the prosecutor generally asking for bail to remain at its current level or revoked outright because the person is too dangerous to let go, the public defender asking for a reduction, or making whatever case is possible that the defendant is not a flight risk.

"He is 55 years of age," the defense lawyer offered about the gray-haired, bearded man accused of second-degree assault after hitting a woman who previously had been accused of assaulting him.

On this particular day, most defendants seemed to have been arrested after similar fights — roommates, girlfriends and other ill-defined relationships that end up in a squabble over a car or breaking something in someone's house. And then there are the more alarming-sounding cases: the purported glass-shard-wielding woman. The four other women who allegedly barged into a home and assaulted someone, fleeing when the police arrived, with the three who were caught appearing one after the other.

Many slouch or nap on the benches until their names are called. They're mostly silent, and in fact are encouraged by the public defender not to say anything that might be used against them at a later trial. As they're either returned to a cell or sent to make bail arrangements, others are brought it to take their places.

To some, this veritable avalanche of crimes that needs to be funneled through the justice system dwarfs any one person, even so vital a position as the city's top prosecutor.

"Initially I think he will try to come in as a much tougher prosecutor, but then reality will set in," said A. Dwight Pettit, a longtime defense attorney who supported Jessamy's re-election efforts.

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