Crime Scenes: Citizen keeps eye on courts

Retired professor hopes community presence will force judges, prosecutors to take cases more seriously

  • Stephen Gewirtz, a retired math professor at Morgan State, is volunteering for Court Watch.
Stephen Gewirtz, a retired math professor at Morgan State,… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 05, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

When Stephen Gewirtz, a retired math professor, scans the list of the recently arrested in Charles Village, he's looking for people like Jerome Owens. He's a twice-convicted burglar who escaped serious prison time with suspended sentences and is now back in court, charged with trying to break into yet another home.

The 68-year-old Gewirtz volunteers as a community court watcher, and it's his job to track Owens and others through hearings and trials, get prosecutors to take cases seriously and persuade judges to hand out prison time.

"When they know you're watching, it makes a difference," Gewirtz told me.

His work started just a few months ago, reviving a moribund Court Watch program run by the Charles Village Community Benefits District. The renewed effort came after last year's fatal stabbing of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn on St. Paul Street.

Every day, Gewirtz heads to his upstairs study in the Guilford Avenue rowhouse he's owned since 1970 and checks electronic court records against a list of people arrested in and around the North Baltimore neighborhood. In just a few months, the list has grown to three pages of 87 names.

It's a different pursuit from the 30 years he spent teaching math at Morgan State University, though he still tutors children at area libraries. He doesn't drive anymore; buses take him from his rowhouse to courthouses scattered across the city.

Gewirtz has become an expert at using the state's computer court database, and he's familiar with the lingo of the court. He uses "controlled dangerous substance" in everyday speech, and he knows that a "stet" means putting a case on temporary hold and a "nol pros" means throwing it out entirely.

Most of all, Gewirtz notes hearing and trial dates that he should attend, mostly of prostitutes, a constant neighborhood complaint, and of violent and repeat offenders. Jerome Owens' name jumped to the top of his list.

The 46-year-old's record is all too familiar in Baltimore.

He was convicted of burglarizing several Charles Village homes in 1998 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but with five of those years suspended. He was convicted again of burglarizing a string of houses on East University Parkway in 2006, and this time a judge gave him 20 years. But he served a little more than a year behind bars — the judge suspended 18 years and 11 months.

Now Jerome Owens is back in custody again, charged with trying to break into another house on East University Parkway in September. Gewirtz told me he knows that plea bargains and deals are necessary — too many cases, too few judges and courtrooms — but at some point, he stresses, "the revolving door must stop."

Court Watch programs are not new, but few groups can sustain the effort it takes to track cases. Court dockets are maddening to decipher, and frequent delays frustrate the most patient observer.

Most defendants on the watch list are represented by public defenders, and representatives of that office wouldn't talk to a reporter about how much impact Gewirtz has on cases. But it's clear from years of watching trials that judges who might otherwise cut a defendant a break pay particular attention to victims who come to court.

In the Owens case, Gewirtz is focusing on the probation issue. If the suspect is found guilty of this latest break-in, a judge could order him to serve the 18 years that had been suspended in 2006. That would be on top of any sentence he might get in the newest case.

That's exactly what happened with John Couplin last month. He was convicted of attacking a woman at knifepoint in Guilford in 2008 and given a 10-year sentence, but with eight years, 11 months and 10 days suspended.

In early 2009, Couplin was charged in another series of attacks in Guilford. Gewirtz tracked the case, and prosecutors, using a recent shoplifting conviction, persuaded a judge to find Couplin guilty of violating his probation and send him back to prison for nearly nine years. He is awaiting trial on the latest charge, which could add more time if he's found guilty.

Gewirtz considers the Couplin case his biggest success — the same judge who handed down the suspended sentence was the one who reinstated it, noting the presence of Court Watch.

The full impact of Gewirtz's work is difficult to ascertain, given that it's just a few months old and most cases have yet to come to trial.

Charles Village leaders restarted Court Watch after Pitcairn was killed last year while walking home. Judges missed several chances to put the main suspect in prison long before the stabbing, and never held him accountable for numerous probation violations.

David Hill, the executive director of the Charles Village tax district, said he wants Court Watch to be selective and not flood the courts on every case with letters that could be viewed as the equivalent of junk mail.

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