Monday, February 22, 2010

Feeding the Press

originally published June 9, 2008

In my first article on Baltimore’s failed War Room, I remarked that Baltimore’s press has been lolling about while Margaret T. Burns has been feeding them their criminal justice stories. Within days, the Baltimore Sun and Burns, spokesperson for State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, proved my point.

“Joint Effort Nets a Big Fish” blared the headline in the Maryland section on Saturday, May 31. The story chronicled the arrest of Christopher Shaw, a criminal who has eluded prosecution for murder and other crimes but had now been arrested, and was complete with quotes from Burns about how tough her office was going to be on Shaw. His case “reflects [the] new pledge of city officials and prosecutors to work together and find creative ways of targeting the worst of the worst,” in the words of reporter Annie Linskey.

Except the article—and Shaw’s arrest—showed none of that. Why?

He beat up three women for putting up a No Trespassing sign to keep away drug-dealers like him. He had to be arrested, whether or not he was somebody’s target. He must be prosecuted with firmness, whether or not police had him on their focus list. And the reporter utterly failed to inform the public that Shaw, at the time of his arrest, was pending felony drug charges and, while those were pending, had been arrested three more times and was convicted of loitering, with no consequences whatsoever.

Burns, who is not an attorney, is notified when targeted criminals like Shaw get arrested. When Shaw’s name came up she, on her own initiative and in violation of prosecutorial ethics, fed the charging documents (before they became available to the public) to the Sun’s Linskey, along with the spin: catching “a big fish” through joint cooperation. The reporter bought it and wrote it. Voila! Burns got the story she wanted and the reporter another article to her credit. This has been the pattern for several years now.

But not only did Burns and Linskey leave out the fact of Shaw’s pending felony charges, they covered the fact that prosecutors failed to attempt “creative” ways to get Shaw off of the street before he attacked the women. Where was the creativity in arresting him after he did it?

Sheryl Goldstein, head of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice, called Shaw’s arrest “an opportunity to focus our resources and attention on him.” I don’t mean to bash Goldstein, who has shown leadership, energy and creativity, as well as a commitment to not fighting with Jessamy as the prior administration did. In fact, she is doing all of the heavy lifting when it comes to new initiatives, while Jessamy and Burns ride her coattails. But to call a felony assault “an opportunity” to get to Shaw…please. The suffering of the victims is not an opportunity, it’s an outrage that should have been prevented.

There are several things prosecutors could have done to get Shaw off the street so no “opportunity” to beat up women presented itself. Some of them have to do with the potential the failed War Room had. I won’t go over that ground again here, except to say that had Jessamy been educating the judges Shaw might not have been out on a mere $25,000 bail.

But just look at what happened after Shaw did post bail in October 2007 on his drug charges. He was arrested three more times—including another drug-dealing case that was dropped--and prosecutors made no effort to revoke his first bail. Shaw was even convicted of loitering, which is hard to do (and I commend the young prosecutor who made the effort.) So why didn’t the prosecutors handling the felony drug case file a motion to revoke his bail? Where was their “focus?”

I can hear it now from prosecutors and judges: “What? Revoke bail for a loitering arrest?” That’s the same old thinking, the status quo. If a new crime is minor it doesn’t count. But War Room prosecutors—before Jessamy squashed their efforts to revoke probations--once used a loitering charge to get jail time for an individual who was on probation for attempted murder. The judge, at first reluctant, was persuaded by evidence of other times the probationer was arrested for similar activity in the same vicinity, the records of the other criminals he was loitering with, and the reminder that he was supposed to be obeying every law, however minor, as a privilege of his release. And in Shaw’s case, if the judge wouldn’t go so far as to revoke bail, they could have tried for strict supervision and an order that Shaw stay out of the 3500 block of Reisterstown Road, the area where he creates his mayhem and has been arrested numerous times. When he showed up there in March of 08 and was arrested for trespassing, they could have revoked his bail, two months before he went to the very same block to beat up the women for their No Trespassing signs. (And by the way, in that context—citizens trying to keep drug dealers from hanging around--don’t the loitering laws seem more than minor now?)

But Jessamy’s prosecutors didn’t even try. So much for creativity and focus.

I e-mailed Linskey to ask how she got the case documents in Shaw’s case and the information on his criminal background. She had the courtesy to call me, but would only say that the documents were “public records.” She did not seem to know that a prosecutor’s release of them before they become publicly available—and maybe even at all--is unethical, though I don’t suppose Linskey would care. Burns makes her job easier, which is Burns’ goal.

As for Shaw’s criminal record, Linskey said she did look it up herself and acknowledged that she should have reported on his pending felony case, but didn’t think the loitering case was “important”. Not only did these omissions mislead the public, she allowed Burns to get away with her repeated excuse that prior prosecutorial efforts to detain Shaw were unsuccessful because they couldn’t find witnesses. They were unsuccessful because they lacked the very same creativity and focus Burns and Linskey claimed they were showing.

I don’t think Linskey did it deliberately. She was too focused on her angle, the one she repeated to me: how hard everyone is working to target violent offenders in certain areas of Baltimore. She just let what she wanted the story to show—as well as the easy byline Burns gave her—blind her to the real facts.

She is not alone in this. The Examiner’s Luke Broadwater practically acts as Jessamy’s press agent at times, and the radio stations and TV outlets gobble up what she serves. (Exceptions are the City Paper and WYPR who are doing some real criminal justice reporting.)

When the reporters and editors of Baltimore stop feeding at Burns’ trough maybe they can shine a more penetrating light on the criminal justice system. Otherwise, politicians and their spin artists will continue to make phony, unchallenged claims about their progress.

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