Monday, February 22, 2010

Murder, Media and the Maddening Cycle

originally published November 24, 2008

When the Baltimore Sun reported that Charles Y. McGaney, one of the accused murderers of former city councilman Ken Harris, had received “time served” on a prior handgun case, my antennas went up. According to the prosecutor and judge, his sentence was “appropriate, considering McGaney's age and the facts of the case.” I thought Baltimore County prosecutors had lost their minds. Young men + guns = Trouble. You don’t let them back on the street without supervision.

Kudos to Peter Hermann for tracking down the facts and learning that McGaney really got time served because the state’s witness moved out of state. County prosecutors got what they could.

But Hermann, after the usual journalistic indictment of “missed opportunities, sloppy work, bureaucratic foul-ups, uncaring victims and uncooperative witnesses,” let city prosecutors off the hook. I get tired of reading generalized sentences like Hermann’s, or articles that describe criminals who “slipped through” the system or the cracks before they commit a truly heinous crime. In order to slip through there first must be an effort to catch them, much like fishing with a big net. Most fish will be caught if the net is strong and well-designed, though some will inevitably slip through.

But in the case of Baltimore City, there’s no net at all. Criminals don’t slip through the city system, they swim through.

Besides his county gun arrest, McGaney was also arrested in the city for possessing 10 gel caps of heroin, an amount that is consistent with drug dealing. Prosecutors knew that he was pending the county handgun case at the time the drug case came to trial. Young men + guns + drug-dealing = Big Trouble.

McGaney had also been arrested for trespassing, loitering, disorderly conduct and was on probation for malicious destruction of property. Reporters and criminal justice officials seem to treat charges like these as too minor to talk about. But this pattern of arrests is significant, pointing to an idle young man hanging on the streets and, together with his more serious arrests, paints a dangerous picture.

So city prosecutors dropped the drug case on the first court date because the laboratory report was, according to Hermann, “not available.” Exactly what plan did they make for when it did become available? Did Hermann ask?

I did, and Joe Sviatko, a spokesman for State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, ignored me. But the fact is that Jessamy has no plan to focus on individuals like McGaney. (She’s happy to hand cases off to the feds, but they can’t take everyone.) McGaney’s was just another city case that got dropped, an easy dismissal on a crowded docket. Gosh, who knew he would end up being charged with killing Harris?

No one knew, of course. And in fairness, no one can claim that Jessamy is to blame for the Harris murder. But neither did she lift a finger to slow down or change the trajectory of an individual who was developing the same kind of resume as known city murderers. Rather than take the extra steps needed to make cases like McGaney’s stick, she has instead wasted resources given to her by the state and city to focus on violent criminals.

However, she does focus heavily on one thing: her image. And nothing illustrates this better than her choice of representative to the city “Gunstat” meetings, spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns.

Gunstat is a multi-agency group that focuses on gun-related crimes, the initiative of Sheryl Goldstein from the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice. It has the potential to hold agencies accountable for case outcomes and for focusing efforts on the appropriate criminals.

But rather than assign a prosecutor to head up her Gunstat efforts, an attorney with technical knowledge of the law and experience in criminal prosecution, Jessamy sends her press aide. It is Burns who sits at the table asking questions, and Burns who makes presentations to other Gunstat members. Real prosecutors only make appearances at Burns’ direction.

After interviewing Goldstein I had felt hopeful about Gunstat’s potential and began attending meetings to get a sense of its effectiveness. When I showed up for my third meeting Burns brought a city official in to kick me out. And well she should have. After all, if image is her thing, she couldn’t have anyone there who actually recognized how clueless she was.

But Burns was too late. I had already witnessed her in action, responding to questions about robbery conviction rates and juvenile arrests. Stumbling and bumbling her way through her explanations, Burns caused one observer to remark that he had no idea what she was talking about.

I did. She was making excuses, lame and phony. She could provide no insight into a longstanding problem regarding juvenile arrests that could be fixed in a pair of seconds if Jessamy had anybody competent running her office. Burns was an embarrassment to herself and to Jessamy.

But Jessamy chose her for the job, and the mayor and police commissioner have no choice but to go along, lest Jessamy pack her tent and go home. Consequently, Gunstat will get no real accountability from the prosecutor’s office, exactly the reason why Jessamy sends Burns.

But the media doesn’t have to go along. Reporters should enlighten the public, not allow press aides to get away with sorry explanations like “lab report not available.” They should end the “woe-is-the-system” post-trauma rhetoric and stop publishing the same articles that get written after every painful murder (see example below) and after every murder suspect with a record gets arrested. They need to be specific and proactive instead, following up on issues and holding public officials accountable by name and with facts.

It’s the only way for journalists to make any kind of a difference.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

When Ken Harris was murdered, I searched past articles to compare what was written about his murder to what was written about the murder of seven members of the Dawson family by a drug-dealer’s firebomb in 2002. There was the same pain and outrage, vigils and prayers, political posturing and criticism of the police. And there was similar rhetoric, too. The we-can’t-let-this-ever-happen-again kind of rhetoric.

One eloquent op-ed piece about the Harris murder was written by Baltimore lawyer Raymond Daniel Burke, a frequent contributor to the Sun. Here is an excerpt from his piece published September 29, 2008:

When the victim is someone who rose up from the mean streets of our city to graduate from college and become a city councilman, and then a serious candidate for City Council president, a part of all of us dies with him. Because he was an example—and that example represented hope....

The story of his life speaks to possibility. It confirms that it is not inevitable that the economically poor be intellectually and spiritually impoverished as well. It dispels the notion that city life means accepting feckless lack of interest in our public schools and open warfare in our streets…

[T]he public debate is filled with diatribes against troubled city youths and their frightening lack of respect for human life, as well as lamentations over how poverty and out-of-wedlock births breed violence. But if we do not go further, and embrace the critical thinking necessary to change the state of our communities, we risk abandoning hope and succumbing to acceptance of the unacceptable as the norm. We risk no longer being able to provide the venue in which vibrant and energetic lives can flourish. We risk making it less possible to produce a Ken Harris. And we will find ourselves watching hope slip away.

And here is what he wrote on June 9, 2002 about the murder of a city high school honor student who had gone to college and was home on break:

Most of us do not know Rio-Jarell Tatum, but a part of something vital to all of us died with him on Memorial Day weekend. The 19-year-old Penn State freshman was nothing less than our hope for our city’s future.

It is not necessary that the economically poor be intellectually and spiritually impoverished as well. It is not a given that inner city life means we must accept disinterest in our schools and warfare in our streets…

But we also carry in the backs of our minds the knowledge of our failures – a public school system that is regarded as a non-option for those with the means to go elsewhere, horrific housing conditions in dilapidated neighborhoods and a drug epidemic that begets a crime wave that makes murder commonplace...

We need to act on these simple truths with all the energy we have devoted to downtown redevelopment. We cannot afford to chalk up another murder to the way things are. We must determine how things must be. Otherwise we risk the killing of our hope.

So I e-mailed Burke pointing out the sameness in the articles and asking him whether he thought anything had changed in the six years between the two murders. I asked what he had in mind when he called on us to “act” and to do the “critical thinking” necessary for change. And I asked what he himself has done since 2002 that exemplifies what he had in mind.

I got an automated response that he wasn’t in the office that day. And then I got nothing.

For all I know, he spends every spare moment working with or on behalf of inner city youth. If that’s the case, I’d rather hear about how that is going and what effect he is having.

And if not, if his writing is just a call to some vague we-must-do-something action, I say enough. Keep the beautiful words on the shelf. We need to know what we can do, not just feel, about the violence in our midst. We need to hear the specifics of plans of action that could really help to stop the killing. Action, not words, will make the difference.

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