Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Some Meaningful Criticism at Last

originally published October 1, 2009

Two back-to-back September editorials in the Baltimore Sun caught my attention.

One, "Finally, an investigation" (Sep.23) contained the first significant criticism I have seen of Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy by the Sun in a long, long time. It took her to task for refusing to look into ACORN’s handling of a couple posing as a prostitute and a pimp. Margaret T. Burns, speaking for Jessamy as usual, gave a litany of excuses that the Sun tore apart—too busy, illegal evidence, not our problem.

I can’t remember when the Sun both pointedly and appropriately criticized Jessamy. Beginning in 1999 and lasting through to her reelection in 2002, the Sun relentlessly blamed her for much of the city’s criminal justice system woes, beginning with the release of four accused murderers for which she deserved not one iota of blame.

The Sun missed the real basis for criticism, and that was the management of her office. Under Jessamy the city state’s attorney office has lacked vision and the ability to appropriately prioritize cases and resources. But since 2002, after Jessamy’s reelection and the hiring of Burns, whose husband once sat on the Sun’s editorial board and who schmoozes the paper with leaked information from confidential files, the Sun has either ignored or been oblivious to the problems of Jessamy’s office.

Until, perhaps, now. Let’s hope we are seeing the start of some meaningful journalism.

The other editorial, "Drawing a line on arson" (Sep. 22) was about Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso getting tougher on juveniles who start fires in schools. While seemingly unrelated, this also made me think about Jessamy. In particular, it made me think about Elizabeth A. Ritter, the prosecutor who handles fire-related as well as white collar crimes (like the ACORN incident) for Jessamy.

Ritter, Chief of the Economic Crimes Unit and a favorite of Jessamy, once called me in outrage. She was upset that a prosecutor who I supervised had charged a high school student with arson for setting a fire extinguisher box ablaze at his school. “That’s not arson!” Ritter scolded me. After I pointed out that the facts met all of the requirements for arson, she still ordered me to dismiss the arson charge and let the student out of jail. “Do you know how many school fire cases we get?” she said, indicating that these were cases too petty and numerous for her to bother about.

Her contemptuous attitude toward school fires disturbed me, but not as much as what happened shortly thereafter. Two juveniles, one who already had a long record for drug dealing and violent behavior, had poured gasoline on the door of a neighborhood woman and set it on fire in retaliation for her calling the police about their illegal activities. They did this with the memory of the infamous Dawson case fresh in the city psyche, the incident where an entire family was wiped out by a firebomb in retaliation for Angela Dawson’s repeated calls to the police. Only this time no tragedy occurred because the fire fortunately petered out before the rest of the house could catch fire.

Prosecutors from the Juvenile Division called me and asked that I charge the juveniles as adults, which I wholeheartedly did. The next morning brought another call from Ritter who, with a complete lack of legal understanding, imagination, and sense of public safety insisted that the adult charges be dropped and the juveniles charged in juvenile court.

So it’s unsurprising to me that Jessamy, with Ritter in charge of the case, was “too busy” to look into the ACORN matter. And it’s good that Alonso is getting tough on school arsonists, because Jessamy (and Ritter) aren’t.

But hoorah for the Sun finally coming down hard on Jessamy. May it continue to expose an administration that likes to talk a good talk, like it does about juveniles who commit crimes, but is “too busy” to walk the walk.

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