Crime Scenes: Rape case dropped; prosecutors mum

New state's attorney reluctant to discuss his rationale

March 19, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

The criminal complaint filed by police in January was shocking. The 48-year-old director of B-Moor Youth Services, a faith-based nonprofit in Baltimore, had been arrested and charged with raping a 15-year-old client at the mentoring organization.

Just as shocking came news on Feb. 18 that prosecutors had dropped all charges against Douglas A. Hicks-Bey.

The office of Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said the decision was "based on a careful and thorough review of the evidence."

I pressed the new chief prosecutor's spokesman, Mark Cheshire, for a more thorough explanation. He told me Friday that the original statement "will be our only public comment."

Here are just some of the questions left unanswered:

•Was the evidence insufficient to sustain charges through trial?

•Was there a problem with the evidence?

• Did police or prosecutors make mistakes?

•Did the victim or her mother not want to pursue the case? And if so, should it matter?

During his campaign to oust Patricia C. Jessamy, Bernstein repeatedly promised more transparency and a new willingness to take on challenging cases that he thought his predecessor had avoided. But since taking office in January, Bernstein has repeatedly refused to discuss decisions that affect the very citizens who gave him a mandate to restore credibility to the city's criminal justice system.

And I'm not just talking policy, though he hasn't been forthcoming there, either.

I'm talking about why he dropped a case against a rape suspect.

I have no reason to doubt that his rationale was indeed based on sound, legal judgment. But his refusal to explain his decision leaves the defendant's name muddied, if not smeared, and does little to placate parents who must be wondering whether it's safe for their children to return to the youth center.

I couldn't reach Hicks-Bey or his lawyer, if he has one; the name of a defense attorney wasn't listed in the court file. I also couldn't reach the victim's mother to see if she agreed with Bernstein's decision. And officials at the nonprofit wouldn't say definitively whether the director has returned, which doesn't help its credibility.

I know it's hard — Bernstein wants to talk in court, not in the press, and I'm not urging him to stand in front of the cameras and hyperventilate like he's on a 24-hour cable entertainment show masquerading as news.

I am asking him to explain in a way people can understand why a citizen of the city was charged with a crime and why his office later chose not to pursue it.

In January, prosecutors in Bernstein's office downgraded a charge of first-degree assault to a second-degree assault against a member of a Jewish citizens' patrol group accused of beating a black teenager. The incident heightened tensions between black and Jewish residents in Northwest Baltimore.

The explanation from Bernstein's office: "No factors beyond the facts and the law were considered, nor will any factors outside the facts and the law ever be considered in making charging decisions in any future case."

Cheshire told me that Bernstein will "not talk about the status of a pending case," and I know this one differs from the rape case because it's still being adjudicated. The spokesman said the same question is asked over and over at community forums and that the prosecutor's answer is always the same:

"He asks that people, if possible, try to reserve judgment until after they see what plays out in open court," Cheshire said. "If they have criticism after seeing what transpired, that's legitimate. There will be an opportunity for this to play out in a very public way … and the public will see what he does or does not do."

Politics is perception, and like it or not, this is politics. The perception to supporters of the youth is that Bernstein caved to pressure from a group with strong connections to police. The perception to the patrol group is that they won a small victory in the pursuit of justice.

Bernstein should stay above the scrum, but can he also offer a measured response explaining the changes without issuing a statement that sounds like Donald Rumsfeld's famous "there are known knowns" quote.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee dropped murder charges against a man earlier this month and promptly issued a statement saying that the defendant had a credible alibi. The Baltimore County state's attorney explained at length why he wouldn't pursue criminal charges against a city police officer in a fatal crash.

Baltimore police arrested Hicks-Bey in January and charged him with rape and other crimes for an alleged attack they said occurred in his Edgewood Road home. Police charging documents show that the girl's mother contacted authorities and that the girl told police the relationship was consensual.

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