Monday, February 22, 2010

Baltimore's Failed War Room

originally published May 28, 2008

On Thursday, May 29 Brandon Grimes will go on trial for the murder of off-duty police officer Troy Chesley on January 9, 2007. A high profile crime, the trial will no doubt be closely followed by the media.

Less than two weeks later, Dajuan Carter will come to trial for the murder of 17-year-old Ronald Harmon, who was shot dead in March, 2007. Just a routine murder for media purposes—another young, black victim of no special note—this trial will likely play out in obscurity.

But both Grimes and Carter had been noticed by Baltimore’s War Room prosecutors and flagged for special attention prior to either murder. Neither should have been roaming the streets when Troy Chesley and Ronald Harmon were shot dead. They represent the War Room’s failure, a failure that was caused by the State’s Attorney’s Patricia C. Jessamy and ignored by Baltimore’s media.

The War Room was created in 2004 following the murders of the six-member Dawson family by a firebomb thrown into their house. Since the fire bomber was on probation at the time he killed the Dawsons, the idea was to focus on repeat violent offenders who were under criminal justice supervision. The State put up the money for personnel, the city chipped in with equipment and technology, and the War Room was placed in the hands of Jessamy, Baltimore’s top prosecutor. Attorneys and clerks were supposed to identify the violent offenders who were on probation, make bail recommendations when they were arrested, and track their progress through the criminal justice system. They did exactly that, recording the results of bail hearings, cases, and hearings on parole and probation violations.

But the only information Jessamy decided to publish was the result of bail hearings. Although her staff was collecting a rich repository of data that could be used to identify the most dangerous criminals and to keep them off of the street, Jessamy refused to share the information that would make the mission successful.

Not only that, Jessamy did not even study the data herself. She delegated the review and editing of War Room reports to her press aide, Margaret T. Burns, who published as little as possible to government agencies. Not one operational person in the office outside the War Room read, analyzed or used the information to change prosecutorial practices or to bring issues to the attention of other agencies.

And so we have cases like Grimes and Carter. Grimes became a “war room offender” when he was arrested for carrying a handgun while already out on bail for the same crime. The War Room recommended a bail of $500,000 but the bail commissioner set only $100,000, which he posted immediately. He was still out on both of those bails when Chesley was murdered. Jessamy gave the War Room’s bail recommendation to the press to cover herself, which embarrassed the District Court judiciary and caused them to start paying more attention to War Room recommendations.

But the War Room had been operating for over three years at the time of the murder. Had Jessamy been working closely with the judiciary from the beginning, they might have paid attention sooner, and Grimes might have stayed in jail.

Jessamy also allowed the Circuit Court judiciary to take a hit in the press when it came to light that a judge had previously allowed Grimes to walk away with a plea deal of only six months for two prior cases. Grimes had been on probation for altering the serial number of a gun and for auto theft and could have gotten nearly three years in prison if he violated probation. Instead, when he was arrested for another auto theft, he was sentenced to only six months for both cases.

This practice, which is so common in Baltimore’s courts, had been identified early on by the War Room as a significant problem. But Jessamy let the sentencing judge take the blame, even as she was failing to point out to the judges and her own prosecutors how these deals undermine the focus on violent criminals.

Jessamy’s failures contributed in yet another way to letting Grimes go free. Not only had the War Room recommended a high bail in the second gun case, it had notified the head of Jessamy’s specialized gun unit of the second arrest so that he could ask a judge to revoke the bail in Grimes’ first gun case. He did nothing. He also did nothing when Grimes was later arrested for misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor burglary. Grimes was pending not only the gun cases but the burglary case when Chesley was murdered.

Dajuan Carter’s case is even more representative of the failure of the entire criminal justice system to focus its resources on the appropriate criminals. His history is outlined more specifically below, and features the worst practices of the criminal justice agencies: a specialized prosecutorial gun unit failing to take any special action, judges bundling up cases for lenient plea deals (with no objection from prosecutors), the Parole Commission letting inappropriate offenders out early, bail commissioners and bail judges who won’t keep dangerous offenders in jail pending trial, and sheriffs and police not making special efforts to serve warrants. The War Room was pointing out most of these issues a year into the program. But Jessamy, by keeping it from everyone’s sight, including her own, made it fail its mission.

It’s particularly ironic, therefore, to hear Jessamy claiming credit these days for a reduced homicide rate in the first quarter of 2008. Although it is way too early to tell what caused the drop and whether it can be sustained, her claim is that “now,” with Sheila Dixon as mayor instead of Martin O’Malley, she is able to focus on violent offenders. She blames her arch-enemy O’Malley for arresting too many people when he supervised the police commissioner, which took away her ability to focus.

Baltimore’s reporters, who have been lolling around these last few years while Margaret T. Burns feeds them their criminal justice stories, have failed to raise two fundamental problems with this claim. First, Jessamy controlled her caseload by refusing to charge many of the cases that O’Malley’s police brought in. Second, and most significantly, both the State of Maryland and O’Malley as mayor had given her extra resources to focus on violent offenders—extra resources, that is, to run the War Room. No one has questioned what she has done with those resources, and every year her funding is renewed.

But in fact, Jessamy buried the War Room. She has no one to blame for the failure to focus on violent criminals—criminals like Brandon Grimes and Dajuan Carter--but herself.

Dajuan Carter’s adult criminal career:

2001: November--arrested at age 16 for illegally carrying a handgun and charged as an adult. Bailed out.

2002: February-- put on probation by Judge Joseph McCurdy, who suspended three years. Prosecutor was Janet Hankin, head of a special unit focusing on juvenile gun offenders.

May and December--arrested for felony assault and felony drug possession, charged as juvenile. Neither the specialized prosecutor nor Carter’s probation agent took action to violate the handgun probation. New cases were handled in the juvenile system.

2003: August--arrested for drug dealing (age 18), posted bail.

December--arrested again in December for drug-dealing. Held in jail until trial.

2004: July--Judge McCurdy turned his probation over to Judge Michael Pierson, who was handling the two new drug cases. Prosecutor Miabeth Marosy sought one year. Pierson imposed probation in the new cases and on the violation of probation. Carter was now exposed to 10 years if he violated probation.

October--arrested for drug dealing and made bail.

2005: January--arrested for drug dealing, flagged by the War Room, and held without bail.

July--Judge Pierson turned his three probation cases over to Judge Joseph Kaplan who was handling the two new cases. Carter was facing 20 years, including 10 without parole. Judge Kaplan, with the acquiescence of prosecutor Marosy, imposed 5 years.

2006: September--released in September on parole by parole commissioners Michael Blount and Perry Sfikas after doing less than 21 months on a five year sentence.

November--arrested for carrying a handgun. War Room prosecutors recommended “no bail.” District Court commissioner Rodney Winns set bail at $300,000. Judge Barbara Waxman agreed with the bail, and Carter posted it.

December--Parole Commission issued warrant. Neither parole agents nor Sheriff’s office served it.

2007: February--failed to appear in court on his handgun charge. Warrant issued. Baltimore police failed to serve it.

March--Ronald Harmon found dead on March 27, shot multiple times.

April-- arrested and charged with the murder of Ronald Harmon. Trial is scheduled for June 10, 2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment