Gregg Bernstein answers questions from the press at an election… (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore…)
In November, John Couplin was found guilty of shoplifting from Macy's, and a judge in Baltimore County sentenced him to18 months in prison.
That routine matter did not go unnoticed by Baltimore City's new state's attorney, Gregg L. Bernstein.
Prosecutors marched into court this past Tuesday and, citing the county case, persuaded Baltimore Circuit Judge John Addison Howard to find Couplin guilty of violating the terms of his probation from a 2008 attack in Guilford.
The judge reimposed the suspended sentence he had handed down three years ago and sent Couplin to prison for an additional eight years, 11 months and 10 days.
And thus rights a wrong.
After Couplin was charged in a series of attacks in Guilford last January — the daylight abduction of a student and the robbery of three women at gunpoint — the victim from 2008 criticized prosecutors for offering the suspect a plea deal in her case that allowed him to escape prison time.
The 43-year-old victim questioned the office of then-State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for refusing to take the case to trial and allow her to take the witness stand. The victim said she was told that cases based on eyewitness testimony were unreliable.
The case was emblematic of the tension between Jessamy and city police. Her office accused detectives of using a flawed photo array to secure an identification and failing to find other evidence to link Couplin to the crime. Police countered that they had a solid ID and that there was no other evidence to be found.
Jessamy's spokeswoman, Margaret T. Burns, called the police investigation "minimal" and said that "there was no evidence gathered from the crime scene that could link the suspect to the crime. The likelihood of securing a conviction at trial was very slim."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi defended the detectives: "We wish this was CSI New York or CSI Miami, where we had DNA in 30 minutes and holograms and fancy equipment. But we don't. Sometimes we have to make do with what we have. In this case, a victim identified the suspect who robbed her."
Judge Howard said at the time that he accepted the lenient plea agreement and the suspended sentence because he wanted to avoid overcrowding his docket with a lengthy trial.
Couplin is scheduled to go on trial in March for the January 2010 attacks; his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Frank Cappiello, did not return calls seeking comment.
I tried in vain to reach the victim of the 2008 Guilford robbery, Christine Dolde, who I had spoken to last year. She was then doing postgraduate work in human genetics at the Johns Hopkins University, and described herself as a "careful observer."
She told me she had been attacked at knifepoint on the steps of the house she had lived in for 15 years and that the attacker took her purse and $300. But she lost far more. Scared and shaken, she canceled her trip to her grandmother's 90th birthday party.
Too frightened to go to the front door, she stopped her mail delivery and opened a post office box, and gave up handing out candy on Halloween. She thought she was overreacting, only to learn from police that the suspect had run by her as she walked her dogs the night the three women were attacked just a few streets away.
That's the difference a suspended sentence makes, over imposing a prison term.
And the issue is right on target for campaign promises made by Bernstein and the strategy employed by his friend, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III — targeting repeat violent offenders.
Prosecutors aren't talking, but I've heard that the state's attorney's office, before Bernstein took over earlier this month, had planned to press the probation violation angle. Even so, the fact that the new state's attorney highlighted this case as an example of what his office wants to pursue shows he understands the concerns of citizens.
At community meetings and campaign events, people often complained that judges imposed probation but never held the suspects accountable when they violated the terms of their release, and that prosecutors were reluctant to press for more sanctions.
To be fair, Jessamy's office did make public note of targeting probation violations, but the cops and citizens complained it wasn't done often enough.
Bernstein used the killing last year of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn to press that very point during his race against Jessamy. Pitcairn was stabbed during a random robbery as he walked to his house in Charles Village while chatting with his mother on a cell phone.
One of the suspects had received a suspended eight-year sentence in 2008 for a violent attack on his girlfriend, and judges refused to reinstate even a portion of those years even after finding him guilty of violating his probation four times.
Bernstein blamed Jessamy for failing to press the issue.
"If the state's attorney had done her job ... Stephen Pitcairn might still be alive today," Bernstein said during the campaign.
Now that he's state's attorney, it appears he doesn't want to be haunted by a similar case.