Monday, February 22, 2010

More Information, Not Less

originally published August 25, 2008

Patricia Jessamy is at it again. For the last seven years Baltimore’s state’s attorney has lifted her profile and image by undermining her law enforcement partner, the police department, something I will explain in more detail in the future.

Now she is after The Abell Foundation, which sponsored a study on criminal jury trial outcomes. The preliminary results confirmed scientifically the long-held and widespread belief that it is more difficult to get jury convictions in Baltimore than in the surrounding counties. Not impossible, just more difficult.

Studies like these are important. They are conducted not to affix blame but to gather data, identify issues, and provide a starting point for further study or action. Most people want the same thing: a criminal justice system that is both effective and fair. How to get there requires information and multiple perspectives.

But Jessamy doesn’t want anybody’s input, it seems. She claims the study is “divisive,” a particularly ironic charge concerning her own divisive tactics with the police department. She accuses the study’s author, Shawn Flowers, of calling Baltimore’s citizens “incapable of performing their civic duty.”

Flower, a PhD social scientist, neither said nor implied any such thing. Jessamy likely leaked the draft report to the Baltimore Sun herself so she could create this spin. It was refreshing to read columnist Jean Marbella’s column (August 18), who got it exactly right, asking why Jessamy or anyone else would run away from information?

If the study’s primary conclusion is true, that Baltimore’s juries convict less often and of lesser charges, the next question is why. The study itself offers multiple possibilities, and I am sure the answer is complex and multi-faceted. I gave my perspective in discussing a curious acquittal in What Baltimore Wants. A woman at my church, a city librarian, gave me hers, telling me that the draft report on jury outcomes made her recognize some dynamics that played out in a jury she sat on.

She said that when they went to the jury room to deliberate a white man said, “He is guilty as hell,” which made the black jurors react, a couple of them so angrily they refused to deliberate for a long while. I instantly suspected that this was a “victimless” drug case dependent on police testimony, which she confirmed. It became clear to her when they did finally deliberate that the black jurors were distrustful of the police. She didn’t make a judgment on it, just an observation.

It is an observation to explore, not ignore. How else does the police department improve its performance and relationship with the community? How else does the community evaluate its own role in the criminal justice system?

But the librarian’s experience as a juror and my experience as a prosecutor, even if representative of wider truths, are only part of the story. With the amount of violent crime in the city comes a great many fearful witnesses retracting their statements and failing to appear in court. Wouldn’t that affect the conviction rate?

The police department has undergone significant turnover in the last decade or so, first when Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier decided to rotate experienced violent crime detectives back out to patrol (and they retired instead), then when Mayor Martin O’Malley went through four police commissioners in seven years. The police department became vastly more inexperienced, which affected the quality of its work.

And then there is Jessamy’s office. In her letter to The Abell Foundation protesting the study, Jessamy blamed everything but herself for lower conviction rates: “community trust in law enforcement [which she has done her utmost to undermine], lengthy postponements due to high volume caseloads and limited resources, obstacles such as witness intimidation, witness failure to appear or deficiency in police investigations.”

But in her comments to the Sun reporter she slipped up: "We look at how we can address issues that negatively impact on outcomes, things like better training attorneys and police."

Better training of attorneys, meaning her prosecutors? Hasn’t she been in charge of prosecutor training for the past 20 years, first as Deputy State’s Attorney and then as State’s Attorney? No doubt that explains why she wants the report suppressed. But regardless of Jessamy’s attempts to control what is published, the public needs more information, not less.

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