Monday, February 22, 2010

Funding for Answers

originally published February 12, 2009

Kudos to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Weinstein, who bluntly told the Baltimore Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (BCJCC) on Wednesday that city judges need to give “back-up time” to criminals who violate their probation. In other words, they should impose the jail time they originally suspended. I hope Judge John Miller, who was sitting at the head of the table and whose record I wrote about in The Empty Threat of Probation, was listening closely.

But this article is about two hearings coming up in the Maryland General Assembly and one recent “promotion” by the city State’s Attorney’s Office.

The promotion concerns Doug Ludwig, former chief of the unit that prosecutes gun crimes and non-fatal shootings (known as the F.I.V.E unit.) F.I.V.E is largely funded by the State, and legislators are holding hearings on both the F.I.V.E. unit and the War Room for the next fiscal year. The War Room is based in Baltimore’s central booking facility and is supposed to focus resources on repeat violent offenders.

F.I.V.E. employs about 16 attorneys and 7 support personnel. It handles perhaps the toughest cases to prosecute, because the victims of attempted murder, many with criminal records themselves, often fail to cooperate in their own cases. F.I.V.E. is a high-profile unit that refers cases to the U.S. Attorney’s office and works on multi-agency violence prevention initiatives.

Ludwig’s was “promoted” from F.I.V.E. to head the unit that prosecutes cases of police misconduct. It consists of one attorney—Ludwig—and two support personnel, and Ludwig will largely determine his own caseload. Whatever the reasons for his transfer from F.I.V.E., it is no promotion. It is a large step down in responsibility and duties. Regardless, Jessamy’s choice of successor is critical.

Ludwig’s main role was to compile statistics on F.I.V.E. unit activities and work closely with federal prosecutors to determine what cases they will take. He did both duties well, but was hands-off on trial supervision. And that shows up in his reports.

For example, in the three months from June through August 2008, the F.I.V.E unit tried 35 cases to juries. They won convictions in only 11, or 31% of the time. Out of 15 cases before judges, only two defendants were convicted, for a 13% conviction rate. These statistics don’t even count the cases that were dropped before trial for evidence problems.

I remember a time when the rate of conviction for cases that went to trial was over 80%. I asked the State’s Attorney’s office to shed some light on their poor results and got no response. I also asked how many of the cases in which defendants pled guilty were due to the fact that federal prosecutors threatened to take the cases if they didn’t. The press office ignored that one, too.

But it can’t ignore the General Assembly, which funds F.I.V.E. Legislators should not award any more money without demanding answers. I am not prepared to lay the blame on trial prosecutors without more. But the city State’s Attorney’s Office has grown less and less experienced under Patricia C. Jessamy, and has shown no imagination or even understanding of its own failures. Jessamy has a chance to infuse new energy, training and supervision into the F.I.V.E. unit. But just as I have lost hope that she will lead, so am I pessimistic that she even recognizes the need.

Jessamy had a chance with the War Room in 2004 to find innovative ways to handle violent offenders. She blew it by limiting the War Room to a program for making bail recommendations.

Fortunately, others have stepped into the void—most notably U.S Attorney Rod Rosenstein, supported by new ideas and efforts from the O’Malley Administration, Mayor Sheila Dixon, and Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld. Jessamy has at least followed along in the past couple of years. But all the agencies are so grateful for her cooperation that no one will question the F.I.V.E. results.

Legislators can, and they must also demand more answers from the War Room. Such as, what happens (and why) to the cases on which prosecutors make bail recommendations? What happens to the probation and parole cases for those offenders? Not all of these cases involve guns, either. Many, many involve drug-dealing, something else Jason Weinstein warned the city about. The results of felony narcotics cases would be most revealing.

The War Room not only has the capability of reporting those facts, it used to do so before Jessamy’s press aide Margaret T. Burns got hold of them. It isn’t enough to talk about bails. It’s about the ultimate results.

The War Room was never taken seriously by State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Rather than use it to develop strategies for prosecution, she limited its reports to bail recommendations, as though bail status was more important than case results.

But here are just a few examples of the War Room’s past attempts to focus on violent offenders and on those toting guns—and the response it got. I don’t particularly blame the supervisors, though they lacked individual initiative. They were given no guidance or direction from the top.

  • When the War Room tried to develop a procedure to take evidence of a new crime into violation of probation hearings, it was flatly rejected by Denise Fili, the former Chief of Circuit Court Administration. She even refused to allow the War Room to do it. Nancy Olin, the senior prosecutor in charge of probation hearings, complained when the War Room tried to find out hearing results.
  • When defendants who were already pending cases in the system were arrested again, the War Room sent notices to the supervisors responsible for those cases so that they might revoke the bail in the pending cases. Not once did any prosecutor attempt to do this. For F.I.V.E. cases the notices went to Ludwig, including a notice when Brandon Grimes, who was pending a gun case, was arrested with another gun. When he was released on bail after the second arrest, Ludwig’s unit did nothing to revoke the first bail, and Grimes murdered off-duty police officer Troy Chesley.
  • When a judge prevented prosecutors from introducing a gun into evidence and the case was dropped, the War Room urged the prosecutor to take the evidence into the defendant’s violation of probation hearing, which has different rules of evidence. After consulting with his supervisor, Ludwig, the prosecutor decided that they wouldn’t bother. The defendant walked on his probation violation, too.
  • When a gun case was dropped because federal agents had seized the gun to see if it had been used in a murder, it was the War Room that stayed on the trail. After repeatedly asking about the status of the gun, and warning three times that the statute of limitations was approaching, Ludwig promised that the case would be charged again and assigned it to a prosecutor. It was charged all right—after the statute of limitations had expired. The case had to be dropped again.

The F.I.V.E. prosecutor responsible for these last two cases was thought so highly of that he was sent to work with federal prosecutors. I wondered how long it would take the feds to find him out. The answer? Less than a year. The War Room, from its limited perspective, could see it. But on site supervisors had no idea. It reflects a lack of hands-on training and supervision that Jessamy does not, or will not, recognize.

But perhaps the F.I.V.E. statistics paint the picture for her.

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