City judges try to 'blast' misdemeanor backlog

Court dedicates three days to lesser crimes

November 24, 2010|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Circuit Judge David W. Young cheerfully volunteered his holiday chore list — picking up the turkey, raking the leaves, washing the good china — to those in the courtroom while waiting for a defendant to be brought in for trial.

The man wasn't transported from jail that morning as scheduled, the kind of mistake that usually leads to a postponement. But Tuesday was an exception. The judicial bench had declared a moratorium on deferrals as part of a three-day effort dubbed the "Misdemeanor Blast."

No felony or civil trials were scheduled in Baltimore on Friday, Monday or Tuesday, so that judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers could chip away at the backlog of 1,400 misdemeanor cases — assaults, drug arrests, minor thefts — clogging the courts.

That meant typical delays would not be tolerated. After a quick call to the judge in charge of the criminal division, M. Brooke Murdock, Young announced that the defendant would be fetched. In the meantime, he chatted with the lawyers and handled several drug cases, sentencing a 29-year-old to time served for marijuana possession and a 28-year-old to 18 months in prison for attempted cocaine distribution.

Under state law, anyone charged with a crime in District Court that's punishable by at least 90 days incarceration has a right to ask for a trial by jury, which only the higher Circuit Court can handle. At any given time, three judges are assigned to those cases, but they can't keep up with the requests, which have steadily increased during the past decade.

They're "getting farther and farther behind," Murdock said in an interview. "There are just so many."

Defense attorneys say there's little incentive to plead guilty in District Court because defendants know that the stretched Circuit Court may cut them a better deal simply to clear their cases. The "probations" offered in District Court often turn into "dropped cases" in Circuit Court, attorneys said, and the six-month sentences sometimes become time served.

The Misdemeanor Blast was designed to sweep through several hundred cases quickly, without compromising justice.

"It's not a fire sale," said Albert Peisinger, a felony prosecutor assigned to five cases Tuesday.

Roughly 15 judges were assigned eight trials a day in the hopes that they could clear a quarter of the backlog, about 360 cases that had been repeatedly postponed, Murdock said. Judges called for extra jurors and attorneys who usually handle felony cases stepped forward to pick up the slack.

"All the component parts pulled together to make this a smooth operation," Murdock said.

Most of the cases still ended in plea deals, however, after defendants realized that the court was ready to go to trial, Murdock said. She believes that's why one man, whose case had already been postponed 14 times, took a time-served sentence Monday for fleeing police.

"He had asked for a jury trial," she said, "but he changed his mind and pled guilty."

Murdock was something of a point person for the effort, but she wouldn't claim it as her own. It's been tried before, she said, though she doesn't remember when. And it may be tried again.

"First we want to see how it works and sort of get a sense of whether we actually were successful," Murdock said. "We're trying not to be overly confident. We'll wait until we see the numbers."

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