Lost in jail, defendants wait weeks for chance at freedom

New tactics challenge court system and prosecutors alike

  • Natalie A. McKeown Finegar is the deputy district public defender for Baltimore City.
Natalie A. McKeown Finegar is the deputy district public defender… (Kim Hairston / Baltimore…)
March 15, 2014|By Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Shykill Brewer was arrested on a misdemeanor gun charge days before Christmas. He should have been able to post bail in plenty of time to celebrate with his infant son and the rest of his family, but instead spent six weeks in jail.

Under court rules, defendants should have a chance to post bail or ask a judge for release within 24 hours, or as soon as courts are open. It took 43 days for Brewer. A judge finally set his bail at $100,000, and Brewer's family soon secured his release.

"It felt crazy," recalled Brewer, 21. "I didn't even know my charges. It really felt like I was just sitting."

Brewer is among dozens of Baltimore suspects who have been detained for days with no chance at release, after being charged directly by prosecutors instead of by police. Officials say the unusual strategy is key to taking down major criminal organizations, but they also acknowledge problems that have led to long delays.

In the 205 cases initiated last year by the office of State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, 20 percent of defendants waited more than five days for an initial appearance in court, according to a Baltimore Sun review. One man waited nearly two months.

Nicholas Panteleakis, a defense attorney whose client waited almost a week for a bail review, said that the "way the whole system is dealing with the issue is troubling."

He added: "A lot of these guys really had their rights trampled on by Bernstein. People don't understand how bad it is in jail."

By indicting defendants directly, prosecutors are bypassing the regular procedure in which police make an arrest and lower courts follow well-established procedures for the earliest stages of a case. Most people charged by prosecutors first appear in downtown courtrooms, which typically handle more serious allegations and set their schedules weeks in advance.

That can lead to delays for defendants awaiting an initial appearance, generally their first chance for release pending trial. Even for suspects already in custody on other charges, such hearings offer a crucial opportunity to review allegations and meet with public defenders for the first time.

When prosecutors decide to send a defendant to Circuit Court, it's their responsibility to arrange the hearings. Elizabeth Embry, a deputy state's attorney in charge of policy, said the delays have a number of causes.

Some cases were held up because the defendant was already in custody, she said, some by logistical problems and others by errors. She acknowledged the need to improve, but said the large number of other defendants charged alongside Brewer after a wide-ranging investigation were processed with impressive speed.

"I think it was actually remarkable that we were able to accomplish what we did, given the scope and the size" of the case, she said, which includes allegations against 48 people prosecutors say are members or associates of the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

The issue is playing out as the state grapples more broadly with how to respect suspects' rights before trial. The state's top court has ruled that defendants are entitled to public defenders at all bail hearings, including those before commissioners in lower courts. The potentially costly proposition has officials reconsidering Maryland's entire system of pretrial release.

That debate mostly turns on what happens when police arrest suspects on the street, and at their earliest court appearances at Central Booking. But new complications arise when the state's attorney's office obtains an indictment through a grand jury.

To gauge the scope of the problems, The Sun obtained a list of all cases initiated by prosecutors through grand jury hearings in 2013, then used electronic court records to determine how much time passed between the dates on which suspects were served with arrest warrants and when they had their first hearings.

Some of the case records were not available, but court files show that at least 64 people waited more than two days before getting a hearing.

The delays have exasperated some judges on the front lines. In January, Baltimore Circuit Judge Sylvester B. Cox saw five suspects, including Brewer, who had all waited more than six weeks for a bail hearing.

On Jan. 16, Cox was presented with Michael Ross, who had languished in jail for 59 days on a drug charge. Of the defendants charged in 2013, he has the dubious distinction of waiting the longest for a hearing.

"Don't tell me he's been sitting around for six to eight weeks or so," Cox said with an audible sigh.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, said later that Ross was supposed to be taken before a District Court official soon after his arrest, but due to a glitch that didn't happen. Instead he ended up in Circuit Court.

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