Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Guilford Robberies

originally published January 21, 2010

Leave it to Margaret T. Burns to once again victimize the victim of a crime.

John Couplin robbed Christine Dolde at knifepoint in 2008, and Dolde, who had given a detailed description, identified his photo. Burns called Dolde’s identification “minimal” evidence.

This is the same Burns who ignited a firestorm in 2008 when she described Zach Sowers, the victim of a fatal beating, as a “sleeping baby” when taken to the hospital, and attributed his injuries to falling between two cars. Her comments caused his widow, Anna Sowers, great mental anguish.

Likewise, Dolde told me that reading Burns’ comments in the paper “really hurt. No one ever told me the case was weak.” In fact, she said she was told how good a witness she would be.

Burns lacks humanity and respect for the truth. State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, her boss, lacks imagination and accountability.

Let’s take John Couplin.

Couplin has been accused of recent armed robberies in the Guilford neighborhood, including a chilling kidnapping that evokes memories of Dontay Carter, a notorious murderer of two decades ago. Couplin hasn’t killed yet, but he’s following the same trajectory.

At the time of the new crimes Couplin was on probation for the 2008 armed robbery of Dolde, the case that Burns claims had “minimal” evidence. What many may not know is that in 2006 Couplin was charged with trying to rob another woman at knifepoint as she walked toward the school where she worked, the same school he had attended before he was kicked out.

When the woman convinced him she had no money he fled, but was caught shortly thereafter based upon her detailed description. Police found the knife on him, and Couplin admitted his crime.

Even Burns (who is not an attorney) could win that case. Couplin, who was 16 at the time, was charged as an adult. His attorney asked the judge to transfer his case to juvenile court, but court records show no ruling on the request.

The records do show that Couplin was being held at the Mountain Meadow Youth Center in Grantsville, Maryland, a substance abuse facility for youths.

After several postponements, the prosecutor dismissed the case. I asked Burns’ office for the reason. No response.

So I called the victim in the case to find out what she knew. She said that she was asked not to press charges because they were going to give Couplin some kind of treatment. She agreed to this though she was skeptical about the results. She heard at work that Couplin had robbed another woman two weeks before he tried to rob her. She also heard that he and other family members had been in lots of trouble. Treatment didn’t sound promising.

Then I checked on the court recording. Prosecutors dropped the case because they recharged it in the juvenile system.

Now according the Sun, Couplin had 17 juvenile arrests and two “convictions” for armed robbery. I have to presume those convictions were for the two 2006 incidents. We don’t know for sure because juvenile records are supposed to be secret.

But we are left to wonder why prosecutors, who had a great case on an armed robber with a horrible juvenile record, decided that a juvenile substance abuse program was in order. Prosecutors throw away strong cases at their peril, or should I say the public’s peril. I understand the motivation to reform a juvenile, and am not prepared to say their decision was unjustified without knowing all the facts. But there may have been alternatives in the adult system that would have accomplished the same purpose and better protected public safety.

So here comes Couplin wielding a knife again in 2008. Prosecutors had to know how dangerous he was now, but they were afraid they would lose their case without evidence to corroborate Dolde’s identification. So they took the conviction on a plea bargain and settled for probation.

I get this. While the position Jessamy has taken in the past is awful--that she won’t try cases based on a single witness--the fact is that it would have been a tough case to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. That would not have excused failing to try the case if Couplin would not take a deal, but it does explain a plea bargain. It may be upsetting to citizens, especially in hindsight, but prosecutors have to decide what would be in the best interest of public safety. If they felt that Couplin would beat the charge, it made sense to take a bird in the hand.

But only if the plea deal provided some protection for the community. And here’s where Jessamy utterly failed because she just continues to do business the same old way. Once Couplin, this repeat armed robber, went on his merry way, the prosecutor’s office didn’t care about him any more. He was just another person for the probation office to handle.

Couplin was arrested for theft in Baltimore County and allowed by a county judge to post bail of $7500. What did city prosecutors do? Nothing. They weren’t tracking him.

Couplin’s probation agent notified the probation judge, John Howard, of this arrest. Howard issued a warrant for Couplin, but instead of holding him without bail Howard set a $500 cash bail, which Couplin posted. Where was Jessamy’s probation unit, the one that is supposed to focus upon violent offenders? Just waiting for his hearing. Which, by the way, is at the end of this month.

Free again, Couplin was arrested for trespassing and released without having to post any bail. City prosecutors then dropped the trespassing case. And still did nothing about Couplin being on the street.

And then came the Guilford robberies, a clear indication that Couplin, if he’s the right man, had escalated his assaults from knives to guns and tossing his victims into car trunks. Jessamy thinks she did everything right. She did, according to the old formula. Take a plea, wait for a probation hearing. So much for focusing her resources on violent offenders.

And judges continue to do business the same old way. Judge Howard’s explanation to the Sun for the original plea deal was reasonable. The deal was driven by the prosecutor. But Howard’s handling of the probation was not.

In The Empty Threat of Probation I pointed out that probation judges frequently ignore the crimes for which defendants are on probation and only pay attention to the new charges. Couplin is Exhibit A. That he was a dangerous, repeat armed robber was so obvious he should have been yanked off the street at the first deviation from the rules. Otherwise, what point was there to getting a conviction through a plea deal? But Howard gave Couplin a low bail on his violation of probation warrant because his new crime was merely theft.

As for the prosecutor, I understand his desire to get what he perceived as a sure conviction. It demonstrates what was lost, however, when he tossed the 2006 case into the juvenile system.

But reporters failed to ask the key follow-up question of Burns, Howard and Jessamy: if getting the conviction was so important that it justified probation, why didn’t they do something meaningful when Couplin was arrested again while on that probation?

Because they were doing business the same old, same old way.

Juvenile record confidentiality

The reason that juvenile records are secret is to allow young people the chance to turn their lives around. I get that and I support that.

But once a juvenile is convicted as an adult the reasoning falters. Why should Couplin, a convicted armed robber, someone who didn’t learn from his juvenile mistakes, have a confidential juvenile record? Why should we be prevented from understanding how he was handled in the juvenile system?

The law on juvenile record confidentiality needs to be changed to open the records upon an adult conviction. They also should be open in every circumstance to those in the criminal justice system who have to make public safety decisions.

This is not to say that those records should be available on employee background requests. I will offer my opinion on that issue at some time in the future.


The Couplin case isn’t without some encouraging signs. First, Couplin was kept off the street for nearly a year while his 2008 armed robbery case was pending thanks to Judge James L. Mann, Jr., who held him without bail. Somebody recognized the danger.

And the Division of Probation and Parole seems to be making progress in changing their culture, even if it took a few weeks to notify Judge Howard of Couplin’s new arrest for theft. In the past agents routinely requested “no action at this time” for new, non-violent arrests. This time they recommended a warrant. Too bad it didn’t lead to Judge Howard taking him off the street.

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