In Jessamy defeat, a bittersweet coda to the Sowers case

Widow of man beaten to death in Baltimore has moved on but is glad to see change in state's attorney's office

September 23, 2010|By Ron Smith

A few hundred miles from Baltimore, a law school student learned last week that Gregg Bernstein upset Pat Jessamy in the Democratic primary for Baltimore state's attorney.

That result gave some long-delayed comfort to this woman we came to know as she battled Baltimore officialdom in the wake of her husband's brutal murder.

Her name is Anna Sowers. Her husband, Zach Sowers, was beaten into a nine-month-long coma in a street robbery a few steps from the couple's Patterson Park home on the night of June 2, 2007. The crime was particularly brutal. The slender young man was "curb-stomped" into an unconsciousness from which he never recovered.

Anna was out of town when the crime took place. When she saw her comatose husband at Johns Hopkins Hospital, his head was so swollen and his face so smashed that she could only identify him by a scar on his right shoulder.

The suspects were tracked down and arrested very quickly. They weren't very smart, using their 28-year-old victim's credit card to buy gas and videos, but one of them, Trayvon Ramos, was a Phi Beta Kappa of viciousness. He was, police and prosecutors agreed, the perp who did the beating.

As usual, plea bargaining ensued, and the other defendants agreed to testify against Mr. Ramos, who was 17 at the time.

Mr. Ramos pleaded guilty and got a life sentence with all but 40 years suspended. He could be paroled after 24 years. The others could serve as few as eight years in prison.

The agreement stipulated that none would be charged with murder if Zach Sowers died from his injuries.

Anna was outraged at the outcome of the plea bargaining and began what turned out to be a long and painful quest to seek justice from a system not noted for it.

As she gained attention, official Baltimore did what it does best: ignore uncomfortable circumstances until they go away.

Anna was persistent and took her case to the public, making it clear that she wanted a trial for her husband's assailants and that in her opinion justice wasn't done. She just wouldn't go away.

Eventually, the Empire struck back.

Jessamy spokeswoman Margaret "Marty" Burns famously commented in an interview with Exhibit A, a monthly magazine on law, that Mr. Sowers "looked like a sleeping baby" when he was rolled into the Hopkins ER. She also said "the injuries were not consistent with this horrible pummeling — it appeared that when he fell down, he had collapsed after being hit."

Ms. Burns also ventured that "he probably injured something in the fall or had a pre-existing condition" and said, "We had not wanted to go against this poor woman. Everything she says to you is not 100 percent accurate. He is gone, and the opportunity to have questions answered were ruined by not having an autopsy."

The Burns interview got a lot of press. More and more people began paying attention to the state's attorney's office and its blatant inadequacies. And Anna kept fighting and raising money for the Zach Sowers Brain Trauma Research Fund. (You can still make contributions online at https://jhweb.dev.jhu.edu/eforms/form/zsowers. Please do.)

When I talked to Anna this week, she said she was gratified that Mrs. Jessamy lost the election but more concerned that Gregg Bernstein follow through on his stated goals in reforming the state's attorney's office. She said a number of friends from the time she shared with Zach have left Baltimore; some because they married and wanted children and some space in the suburbs, others fearing for their safety.

When breaking down the vote in the contest between Mrs. Jessamy and Mr. Bernstein, precincts in gentrified — that is, largely white — neighborhoods, made the difference in breaking hugely for the latter. Anger at the handling of the case of Zach Sowers (a white man attacked by a group of black assailants) certainly played a part in this sentiment, as did the murder in July of Stephen Pitcairn as he walked to his Charles Village home from Penn Station.

That the accused killer of Mr. Pitcairn, a young Hopkins research technologist, had a criminal record that should have kept him behind bars but didn't, again stirred up the feeling that it was time for Mrs. Jessamy to go — and to take Marty Burns with her.

Can Mr. Bernstein follow through with his promises of more effective and accountable criminal prosecution in the city?

Let's hope so.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 9 a.m. to noon, on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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