Man arrested in 2011 murder believed linked to recent killing

Case of James Berry III highlights tough decisions on whether to bring charges

December 12, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

More than a year ago, police suspected that James Berry III had killed a man during a triple shooting in Bolton Hill, and they presented their evidence to prosecutors.

At the time, the case was not deemed strong enough to merit arresting Berry, once a promising boxer with Olympic dreams. It wasn't until last month that detectives got the green light to charge the 25-year-old with murder, after another triple shooting — which left two men dead — focused police attention on him again.

Berry has not been charged in last month's West Baltimore shooting, which killed two brothers and critically injured their mother, but Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, speaking Wednesday at a meeting of criminal justice officials, said investigators believe Berry was involved. With police focusing on Berry once again, prosecutors reinterviewed witnesses in the Bolton Hill case and authorized charges, several police sources said.

The situation is part of a broader debate about when evidence is strong enough to bring criminal charges — a debate that sometimes pits police and prosecutors against each other.

Interviews with multiple police sources with knowledge of the Bolton Hill shootings show that many in the department believed that they could have charged Berry last year, though others questioned whether the evidence was strong enough. State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein declined to comment on an open case.

Batts said he met with the top prosecutor last week and presented five cases that police felt were ready to be charged but which prosecutors had not authorized. He said Bernstein looked at them and agreed to bring charges in the cases.

Such decisions can make a big difference in city neighborhoods. A criminal who beats a charge because the case against him was too thin can become even more menacing on the streets, authorities say. A wrongly accused man could spend months or years in jail before his case works his way through the courts.

For Berry, the latest investigation adds to the trouble he has faced since he lost his shot at a college boxing scholarship and a ticket out of Baltimore's tough neighborhoods. He was acquitted of murder in 2008, and just last weekend lost his best friend to gun violence in the city, his lawyer said. Batts said Wednesday that the weekend violence is believed to be retaliatory.

Berry's parents, Yolanda Williams and James Berry Jr., say his recent arrest amounts to police harassment. They insist that their son is not a killer.

"He's just a stand-up type of guy. The police from West Baltimore just got something with him," Williams said.

Police detectives have complained that Bernstein has stalled cases by imposing stricter oversight of the charging process, despite his campaign promises. In his push to unseat incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy, he vowed to be more "courageous" than his predecessor when taking on cases, including ones that police feel strongly about but that may rely on one witness or circumstantial evidence.

Statistics show the Baltimore state's attorney's office in 2011 had charged two-thirds the number of homicide cases than in the previous year, which critics point to as proof of greater prosecutorial control over charging.

Prosecutors say they want to build strong cases that will result in appropriate prison time. Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said police and prosecutors are working more closely than ever.

"There's an absolutely unprecedented level of cooperation between police and prosecutors in our pursuit of individuals who commit violence against others," said Cheshire, adding that "prosecutors are really working hard to investigate and prosecute those who do harm and even kill others."

Former Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said his interactions with prosecutors in Bernstein's administration gave him confidence that they had the city's best interests in mind when contemplating charges, but he acknowledged some tension.

"I think, for sure, [prosecutors are] trying to build better cases," Bealefeld said. "They're dedicated to getting convictions. The lingering part in the minds of detectives is [concern] that they won't take the cases so they preserve a high conviction rate for themselves. …The long-term of this is going to require trust on everyone's part."

Berry was a promising boxer who won the Golden Gloves state and regional titles. The Baltimore Sun profiled him in 2007, chronicling his challenge in staying away from the drug-dealing that had gotten both his parents in trouble.

"Little Berry, he got that mentality that he a thug," his mother told reporters at that time. "And I want to save him from that corner."

The Sun reported the next year that Berry was to attend the United States Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University on a scholarship. But the center dropped boxing from its program, ending Berry's best chance to go to college.

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