originally published May 6, 2009
When the Baltimore Sun reported last week that an innocent teenager named Darren Brown had been kept in jail for seven months on attempted murder and robbery charges, State’s Attorney spokesperson Margaret T. Burns did what she does best: passed the buck to the Baltimore police department.
“From what I understand, police sought the warrant for Brown’s arrest without the approval of a prosecutor,” the Sun quoted Burns as saying. Although forced to acknowledge that prosecutors took the case to the grand jury, Burns continued to bewail the State’s Attorney’s lack of input into charging the case. She implicitly blamed a former supervising prosecutor for not assuming control over the process, and assured the reporter that the new supervisor would do better.
That was pretty skillful. The police were to blame for not consulting prosecutors. And to the extent that prosecutors could be blamed, it was for not enforcing the policy that police had to consult prosecutors before seeking charges.
Now for the truth: prosecutors charged the case nine days after police arrested Brown. They did so by drafting charges and presenting evidence to a Baltimore grand jury, who returned the indictment that prosecutors sought. To suggest that Brown’s seven-month confinement was due to the police not consulting prosecutors is a preposterous prevarication.
Since court records don’t reveal when prosecutors learned that Brown might be innocent, it is hard to know what they could or should have done earlier. But Burn’s complaint - lack of police consultation with prosecutors - had nothing to do with Brown’s confinement. It’s a chestnut Burns likes to pull out when cases are dropped. Here, and not for the first time, it’s a demonstrable lie.
Which brings me to another recent event, the acquittal of police officer Terry Love, Jr. on assault charges stemming from an off-duty fight with another man. After his acquittal, State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy put him on her “do not call” list, meaning that prosecutors can’t call him as a witness in any criminal case and rendering him essentially useless as a police officer.
Now I don’t have a problem with this. According to court records, Love wrote a report to his superiors giving his account of the fight. Love’s statement concluded with the claim that the other man ran from the scene and could not be located. But according to multiple independent witnesses (who did not see how the fight started), it was Love who ran while the other man lay prostrate in need of an ambulance. Regardless of the jury’s verdict on whether Love was guilty of assault, if prosecutors believe he lied in a written internal report about how the fight ended it is difficult for them to have any faith in his credibility on other matters.
But here’s what does pose a problem for me. The Sun’s Peter Hermann, reporting on Love and the do-not-call list, quoted Margaret T. Burns as follows:
“Police officers are the state’s attorney’s professional witnesses. The expectation is that they are above reproach in their testimony and that they testify truthfully and accurately on the facts.”
How’s that for the height of hubris? A woman who persistently misleads the public pontificating about the need for truth-telling.
Almost from the day Burns began her job as spokesperson for State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy she has prevaricated, not just to the public but to Jessamy herself. When documents began leaking out from files to the press after going through her hands, Burns would vehemently deny that she was the source. When Jessamy wrote an internal policy prohibiting the release of charging documents for ethical reasons, documents continued to leak out and Burns continued to deny her involvement.
Finally she was caught ordering a prosecutor to fax them right to the Sun’s city desk, giving the lie to all her denials. Jessamy now had the proof but did nothing. By that time she had become so dependent on Burns for good press that she rationalized even this.
So the State’s Attorney who demands that police officers tell the truth at all times about everything fails to impose the same standard on the person who speaks for her. Reporters with whom I have discussed this typically shrug. Burns is a “flack,” they say. She is supposed to “spin.” And they dutifully report what she tells them (as she hands them charging documents that spare them any legwork.)
I get spin, as in putting the best face on a situation. I don’t get lies, especially from a prosecutor’s office. I don’t get blaming a law enforcement partner every time there is a screw-up, and failing to take professional responsibility. And I don’t get Jessamy, who is sworn to uphold the law, employing a holier-than-thou spokesperson who can’t or won’t tell the truth.
Ironically, the Terry Love, Jr. case was an incident in which the police did consult with prosecutors before charging Love. In fact, a police progress note specifically stated that Haven H. Kodeck, Deputy State’s Attorney, told police that the investigation would go through his office. The next police progress note was written one year later. Kodeck had dropped the ball, and the “investigation” had lain dormant for a year, a huge unfairness both to Love and to the alleged victim.
So the next time Burns does her schtick - “if only the police had consulted with prosecutors…” - take it for what it is worth. Which is nothing.