Monday, February 22, 2010

Sensation and Substance

originally published May 19, 2009

When Baltimore’s criminal justice leaders said farewell to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Weinstein last week, it didn’t surprise me that it didn’t make the Baltimore Sun the next day. The Sun had posted a little blurb about Weinstein’s appointment to the U.S. Department of Justice a few weeks before. And it had a far sexier story for its ever-shrinking space: a fight between two co-defendants in a murder case in a Baltimore courtroom.

Sensational stuff, no doubt. It’s just too bad the Sun has lost so much of the ground it used to cover that it can’t also provide depth to less flashy issues of greater import. For that I don’t blame the Sun. We citizens shoulder that responsibility, too busy or too distracted or too, well, ignorant to understand how much we lose when we don’t support our newspapers.

The courtroom assault was about carelessness by correctional officers who didn’t handcuff murder defendant William Key properly and let him sit near his co-defendant, Kenneth Robbins. Knowing that Robbins might testify against him for a plea deal, Key slipped his handcuffs and pounced on Robbins. Patricia Jessamy, the State’s Attorney, performed an I-told-you-so-routine about witness intimidation and the need to do something about it.

Well, she can do something about it: she has 10 years available for the misdemeanor assault and 20 years for witness intimidation. She certainly can do better than the meaningless six months Key got for contempt of court, a sentence he will serve while locked up waiting for his murder trial to begin.

The one aspect of the story I want to highlight is the prosecutor, Terry Shaffer, who was busy negotiating for the testimony of Robbins when Key attacked him. Shaffer is one of those prosecutors who handles violent case after violent case, stands up to the pressure and the stress, and does a thankless job very well. She kept her cool in the middle of the courtroom scuffle, even attempting to prevent one of those involved from leaving the courtroom. The Terry Shaffer’s of the world keep us from complete crime anarchy, and deserve the public’s appreciation.

And so does Jason Weinstein. He, under the leadership of U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, spearheaded the drive to take violent criminals off Baltimore streets for the last several years. He leaves behind tangible results that can be largely credited to his drive, vision and ability to win cooperation from multiple agencies. See Baltimore’s Violent Crime: The Good News. Even this year the combination of homicides and non-fatal shootings (which are would-be homicides) are down 15%. Weinstein’s loss, combined with the uncertain status of Rosenstein, a Republican appointee whose term is up soon, puts future federal efforts in Baltimore in question. That could have bad--substantially bad—implications for Baltimore.

Speaking of bad news, there was District Court Judge Nathan Braverman again making it possible for an accused murderer to post bail. James Clea was accused of conspiring with Pastor Kevin Pushia to kill a disabled man for an insurance policy that named Pushia as the beneficiary. Clea even admitted being involved, though he downplayed his role to say he thought the victim was only to be roughed up.

Not only did Clea have to be brought back to Maryland from another state to face the charges, he had been put on probation for armed robbery just six months before the disabled man was found with a bullet in his head. Even if the defendant’s admission had any credibility at all, even if he was so dumb as to think that roughing up a disabled man was what the insurance beneficiary wanted, he belonged in jail awaiting his trial. Yet Braverman gave him the chance to walk free by overturning a commissioner’s order to hold Clea without bail.

I first wrote about Braverman last July, when he let a man accused of an execution-style murder post bail. See Judge Nathan Braverman and Judge Nathan Braverman, Part II. After the accused murderer was arrested for shooting someone else, I chronicled other bail decisions that Braverman has made in Smith and Grimes Revisited.

None of it mattered to Baltimore’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which nominated Braverman for appointment to the Circuit Court, a place where Braverman would handle many more violent cases. So much for the nominating commission’s ability to find the “best qualified” candidates for judge. (He isn’t the worst nominee, though. That distinction belongs to a nominee for the District Court who is the laziest lawyer I ever knew who doesn’t like black people but who interviews with a charming disingenuousness.)

I happened to observe Braverman in action recently and can only conclude that he applied to the Circuit Court because he is bored. That’s how he acted the whole hour he sat in domestic violence court the morning I was there. Hunched over the judge’s bench, leaning on his arms, talking rapidly as he looked all around, his demeanor was in stark contrast to that of Judge Christopher Panos a few courtrooms down, who took the time to explain everything to every citizen carefully, politely and patiently.

Braverman seemed barely interested. In one case, a victim decided not to testify against her husband and exercised her spousal privilege not to do so. The prosecutor explained to her that the law only allowed the victim to use this privilege once. Braverman chimed in with his rapid cadence, telling her that if she needed her privilege in the future she had “wasted it.”

Nice touch. Think of all the victims of violent crime he can talk to like that at the Circuit Court. If, of course, they show up at all, knowing that accused violent criminals may be free on the bails that Braverman sets.

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