Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Endless Refrains

originally published January 7, 2010

The headline on a mid-December Sun news story read: Endless refrain of ‘bad guy with a gun.’ The story chronicled the all-too-familiar story of a convicted murderer who despite many new arrests was free to shoot two more people before police officers fatally shot him. Frustrated and angry, Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld railed about the failure of the criminal justice system to keep these criminals off the street.

In direct response to the article, a Hopkins professor wrote a piece which, to be consistent, the Sun should have headlined, Endless refrain of ‘better prevention.’ (Arrests aren’t enough December 27.)

Each time someone calls for a more effective criminal justice system, someone else calls for better jobs, education, and so forth. That’s okay, it’s just a different issue.

At least the professor acknowledged the need to “get good convictions and get long sentences for ‘bad guys with guns.’” But we don’t need any more Endless Generalizations about problems and solutions. We need specifics. So let me provide one example that specifically illustrates some fundamental problems with the criminal justice system and why bad guys with guns are on the street.

One day last October a young man named Jonathan Miller was, according to witnesses, acting as a lookout while an accomplice was attempting to jimmy a car’s ignition. When a witness approached the accomplice fled, but Miller pulled a gun and pointed it at the witness before retreating into his own house on the same block. When police arrived they found damage to the car’s lock and ignition, and arrested Miller when he answered their knock on his door.

(Here I have to pause the narrative and compliment the police, because their next step was to get a search warrant to search Miller’s house. Too often have I seen the police make an arrest at this point and decide their job was done, failing to pursue further evidence.)

When police served the search warrant they did not find the gun but did find dozens of small vials containing suspected cocaine residue inside his bedroom ceiling. So now we have a description of Miller pointing a gun together with evidence that Miller is in the drug-dealing game, a combination that, along with his youth (age 18), screams out violent threat.

Miller’s bail was initially set at $50,000. But Judge Jack Lesser learned at Miller’s bail review that Miller was pending an assault case in Baltimore County and was on three juvenile probations. Remarkably, Lesser held Miller without bail, an atypical judicial response to this set of facts.

The police did not analyze the drug residue by the November trial date, which caused the prosecutor to request a postponement. Miller was equally unready to proceed because his lawyer was out of the country and the lawyer’s associate had just met Miller in court that day. But curiously, the need for delay was treated as the State’s alone. The unprepared defense attorney said that if the judge was “inclined” to grant the State’s postponement request would he please set a bail of $50,000. Translation: Miller can make this bail, and he ought to be set free rather than allow the State to hold him in jail when it isn’t ready for trial.

The prosecutor could have asked for a short postponement and demanded that the police analyze the drugs. She could have argued that Miller was such a danger that he still needed to stay in jail while the State obtained the lab results. She could have decided to try the case without the drugs, in which case Miller would have certainly requested a postponement or a jury trial and delayed the case himself.

But she sat mute. Judge Nathan Braverman proceeded to review the bail and asked about Miller’s juvenile record. The conversation went approximately like this:

Prosecutor: I don’t have his juvenile record, but the defendant said he is on juvenile probation

Defense attorney: I don’t have it, either. (Turning to client.) What are you on probation for?

Miller: Marijuana.

Defense attorney: Marijuana, your Honor. No violent crimes or anything like that.

So the only “evidence” about Miller’s juvenile record came from Miller. And no one mentioned that Miller was pending an assault in Baltimore County, a fact that was sitting in the court file for the judge to see.

Judge Braverman set an even lower bail (by half) than Miller wanted and he went free that day. Oh, I almost forgot: Braverman set a curfew of 8 p.m., telling Miller that if he didn’t obey the curfew he would go back to jail with no bail. Braverman didn’t say a word about who was supposed to check on Miller. It was the honor system.

So off Miller went. And less than a month later, a few days before Christmas, he was arrested for the stabbing murder of Joshua Hargrove at a party at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. A party that took place, of course, after Miller’s curfew.

Perhaps Hargrove might have been murdered without Miller’s presence at the party, since according to police Miller was one of several that attacked Hargrove. We’ll never know. But we do know that the criminal justice system had its chance to keep Miller from the scene and fumbled the ball.

The Hopkins professor who wrote “Arrests aren’t enough” called for an end to “finger-pointing.” When it comes to politicians blaming each other, I quite agree. But when it comes to public officials who repeatedly undermine public safety, we need more finger-pointing, not less. What did Judge Lesser understand that Judge Braverman didn’t? That young men in the drug business who point guns and have repeated arrests and probations spell D-A-N-G-E-R.

State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy deserves finger-pointing, too. Her attorneys clearly don’t have the records that they need, and they lack the training to recognize and properly handle threats like Miller. This is something Jessamy could have fixed years ago and still hasn’t. Yet soon she will be running around Annapolis telling the 2010 General Assembly all the things she could do with more criminal laws.

And let’s not leave the police department off the hook. I thought they had that old problem with late laboratory reports solved. Apparently not.

But the missing lab report didn’t justify the release of Jonathan Miller to the street. Commissioner Bealefeld is right to be outraged at the way that bad guys with guns are handled. Don’t talk to him about prevention programs. Miller was in school, working part-time, and living with a mother who owned her own home. Yet his criminal behavior fell to Bealefeld and his police officers to handle, and then to the courts. And once there, the system failed. Again.

And we know why. Miller’s case is not unusual. We have judges and prosecutors who don’t recognize what individuals need special attention. Knowing the cause, the problem can be addressed.

Will it? Or will we have more endless refrains?

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