Monday, February 22, 2010

Judge Nathan Braverman

originally published July 15, 2008

Why can’t Baltimore keep its violent criminals off the street? For one thing, Judge Nathan Braverman.

Last Friday, he set a bail of $350,000 for 25-year-old Demetrius Smith, overturning the decision of a commissioner to hold him in jail without bail. Smith posted bail the next day, something I wouldn’t have been able to do. But I am not a drug dealing enforcer.

What was Smith accused of doing? Putting a gun to the head of his victim and shooting twice. Judge Braverman allowed a convicted drug dealer, now charged with first degree murder, to walk out of jail.

I asked Judge Braverman for his reason, and he told me that it was “inappropriate” for him to comment on a “pending matter,” referring me to the audiotape of the proceeding. I intend to listen to it, and will report back what I hear. But I did read the charging papers at the courthouse, and I have over four years of experience reviewing how Judge Braverman handles bail reviews when I was a prosecutor. My educated guess is that he felt he didn’t have “enough” to hold Smith without bail. A district court commissioner had “enough” to actually charge first degree murder after reading the application from the homicide detectives, but Judge Braverman didn’t have enough to keep him locked up.

Here is what the charging documents said: that after the victim, Robert Long, was found murdered, the police investigation revealed that Smith had been walking near a park near the 400 block of S. Stricker Street with the victim when he pulled out a gun and shot him twice in the head. He then fled the scene. The police located “witness[es]” in developing this narrative who identified Smith as the shooter through photo arrays.

The police will certainly be disclosing who those witnesses are and exactly what they said at the appropriate time, so that Smith can defend himself at trial. That is what discovery is for. Discovery does NOT apply to bail review.

Judge Braverman doesn’t get that. He is always complaining that he needs to know “more.” How many witnesses? What did they say? He knows that a defendant can use this information to find out who the witness or witnesses are. He knows all about witness intimidation, and witness murder. He just doesn’t care.

I have a file of bail reductions from Judge Braverman that make my hair stand on end, and a quick glance through it produced this eerily similar case from 2005, without the corpse: The defendant was identified by a witness as one of four defendants who dragged a victim into a street yelling about money and beat him so severely he had facial fractures and cerebral hemorrhaging. (If this sounds like street level drug enforcement to you, you are catching on fast.) The commissioner set a $500,000 bail, the prosecutor asked for “No bail, and Braverman lowered the bail to $3500 in cash. He then cynically suggested to the defense attorney that he remind his client about the new witness intimidation statutes, now that Judge Braverman was letting his client hit the street.

So Smith is out there right now looking for that witness or witnesses, or anyone he thinks may be that confidential witness. If something happens to them, if they are not available for trial, Judge Braverman would then be free to comment on his rationale, since there would no longer be a pending matter. Most likely he would congratulate himself on having perceived how weak the state’s case was, since, after all, it was dropped.

But in fairness to Judge Braverman, who is due to be reappointed in two years, we can count on him to hold an offender without bail in at least one circumstance. He once lowered the bail of a convicted robber from no bail to $250,000 after he was charged with another robbery. When the defendant muttered something under his breath, however, Braverman took the file back from the clerk and raised the bail back to no bail with the comment, “Anything else you want to say?”

Too bad for the public that Smith wasn’t one to disrespect the judge, or he might still be in jail. An execution-style murder charge couldn’t keep him there.

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