A 'partial victory' for Baltimore's new state's attorney

Critics disappointed Bernstein deviated from 'fight crime first' philosophy

May 04, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

After he campaigned on a slogan of "Fight Crime First," many expected that for his first case, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein would pursue a repeat offender who had slipped through the fingers of the previous regime. Perhaps a drug killing, or a case of witness intimidation.

But to the surprise of critics who worried that he would be too cozy with the police who endorsed him, Bernstein chose to try three city officers charged with kidnapping and misconduct after picking up two West Baltimore teens and dropping them off far from home.

Bernstein made no secret that he took the case in part to prove skeptics wrong.

"I do think it is important for the public to know that as state's attorney, I take these cases very seriously," he said outside the courthouse after a jury found two of the officers guilty of misconduct but acquitted them on the more serious charges of kidnapping. "We think these officers did not act appropriately. They dishonored the badge. … As long as I'm state's attorney, we will not allow that kind of conduct."

For a prosecutor who had accused his predecessor of too often battling police, some saw Bernstein's prosecution of the officers as a betrayal and a failure.

Defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell said after the verdict that Bernstein had wasted his time. "Look at what he ended up with — a misdemeanor" conviction, he said, vowing to appeal. "Our hope is that he doesn't end up with that either."

And the police union that enthusiastically endorsed him as a crusader for justice felt let down.

"Choosing this case to go forward with first seemed more political than his mandate of fighting crime first. I would've looked elsewhere," said Robert F. Cherry, president of the police union, which backed Bernstein during his campaign against longtime incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy.

The case itself presented a slew of challenges: It pitted Bernstein against three skilled defense attorneys who accused him of misconduct and made some of his key witnesses look foolish under relentless cross-examination. Bernstein often appeared frustrated, eyes closed and hand on his brow.

For his efforts, after two weeks of testimony, jurors and a city judge delivered what many say is at best a partial victory for Bernstein, convicting two of the officers of misdemeanor counts of misconduct in office while finding the third not guilty on all charges. All were cleared of felony counts of kidnapping, false imprisonment, assault and conspiracy charges, or, as their supporters noted, 38 of the 42 counts they collectively faced.

But a relative of one of the teens said the family appreciated that Bernstein had made the case a priority for his office. In the year after the incident occurred, the case seemed to languish, and they believed it would be "swept under the rug."

"He knows justice needed to be served, and that's what he's doing," said Rhonda Stokes, an aunt of Michael Johnson Jr.

A heavyweight bout

On the first day of the trial, after days of contentious motions hearings and then jury selection, Bernstein stepped up and grabbed the lectern with both hands. For months he had been cooped up in offices, trying to reorganize and refocus the prosecution of criminals in Maryland's most dangerous city. Now the trial attorney was back in his natural habitat.

"My name is Gregg Bernstein," he told the jurors, "and I am the state's attorney for Baltimore City."

Baltimore's top prosecutor had not personally tried a case in at least 15 years, and Bernstein, formerly a white-collar defense attorney, had made it a campaign pledge to roll up his sleeves and argue cases in court.

The officers were charged one year ago by a grand jury, after the police investigation appeared to have stalled. The prosecutor assigned to the case retired when Jessamy left office, leaving a void as Bernstein looked for a replacement.

Bernstein began interviewing witnesses in early April, according to testimony, and handled the bulk of the trial proceedings. Veteran prosecutor Michelle Martin tried the case with him, and they were assisted by A. Paul Pineau, a young Harvard Law School graduate recruited by Bernstein from his private firm.

Often peering over his glasses, Bernstein's presentations were typically straightforward and conversational, while on cross-examination, he drove home his points with question-and-answer volleys with the witnesses.

"Would your faith in the detectives be shaken if you knew they'd taken juveniles out of the neighborhood against their will?" he asked prosecution witness Maj. John Hess, who replied that he would have to know the facts.

Bernstein pressed, pausing only long enough to let Hess squeeze in one-word answers:

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