Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Baltimore’s Shadow State’s Attorney

Three things I noticed about last week's conviction of Lamont Davis for shooting 5-year-old Raven Wyatt in a botched attempt to kill a fellow teenager.

First, the work of Diana Smith, the prosecutor who had to battle the alibi provided by the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) that Davis was home at the time of the shooting under their supervision. Smith is one of a number of dedicated, competent prosecutors whose work is overshadowed by the political nonsense of her superiors at the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office.

Which leads to point two. Police solved the case using evidence gleaned from a stationary outdoor surveillance camera, known as a pole camera, which captured the incident on video. It’s the second time in a month that a pole camera led to a conviction in a shooting case.

Yet as the Sun’s Peter Hermann pointed out, city state’s attorney Pat Jessamy actually used the first conviction to decry pole cameras as a waste of money. As usual, Jessamy herself did not speak on the issue. The press release and subsequent commentary came from Margaret Burns, Jessamy’s press aide.

When pole cameras first went up in 2005 under Mayor Martin O’Malley, Burns ordered prosecutors to identify and track cases in which police arrest reports mentioned cameras. The order didn’t come from trial supervisors, from Jessamy, or from anyone else who should have been interested in maximizing the cameras’ potential. It came from the media spokesperson, then at the height of her personal and political feud with O’Malley.

Burns was busy attacking O’Malley and the police on all fronts, from arrest numbers, to police officer appearances in court, to crime lab issues, to a new citation system designed to reduce the number of arrests Burns was complaining about. She undermined the police at every turn.

From its inception Burns resolved to label the pole camera program a failure. She even sent an e-mail to prosecutors seeking examples of blurry pole camera images for distribution to the media, something Steve Fogleman, a candidate for state’s attorney, exposed in 2006.

But O’Malley’s been gone from Baltimore for three years, and Jessamy’ prosecutors just secured two shooting convictions in one month with the help of pole cameras. So why the continued pokes at the program? Anything that helps Jessamy convict criminals ought to be welcomed.

Perhaps she’s thinking of running for mayor, and is playing politics with public safety to get there. If there’s one thing Jessamy’s behavior over the past decade has demonstrated, it’s Pat's Political Career before the Public Interest.

But I also worked long enough with Margaret Burns to know that she genuinely enjoys the kick-the-police game to which she is now addicted. It’s possible that her curious attacks on pole cameras simply reflect a personal pathology that derives pleasure from conflict.

And finally my third observation. When the Davis verdict came down we didn’t see Jessamy on camera before the media, Jessamy photographed by the Sun, Jessamy quoted, or Jessamy dispensing congratulations to her staff. We saw Burns. Here we had one of the most high-profile convictions by Jessamy’s office in recent memory, and Jessamy’s nowhere in sight.

If and when Jessamy declares her candidacy for mayor, or even if Jessamy confines her political ambition to another run for state’s attorney, her supporters and contributors need to recognize what their eyes tell them: that the candidate behind the candidate—the Manchurian Candidate, for old movie buffs—is Burns.

It’s Burns who forms the strategy, who relentlessly attacks perceived enemies, who puts her candidate forth even as she pulls all the strings, not just about media matters but about prosecution strategies. But unlike Angela Lansbury, who brilliantly played the power behind the candidate in the 1962 movie, Burns can’t quite keep her ego in check.

A good puppeteer, even a good media relations director, would have put Jessamy out in front. And any state’s attorney worth her salt would have spoken to the people herself after such a significant verdict.

Burns grabbed the spotlight instead. The shadow state’s attorney stepped forward.

Voters take heed. A vote for Jessamy, whatever office she runs for, is a vote for Burns.


The Value of Technology

The Baltimore Sun editors took two technologies to task after the Davis verdict.

The GPS monitoring system used by DJS to “supervise” juveniles in the community was proved a joke beyond a reasonable doubt. And despite the nine months DJS has had to fix their home monitoring program since the shooting, it remains inept. A co-worker of mine had her teenage son hooked up to an ankle bracelet for DJS home monitoring this week. He leaves the house when he wants, and nothing happens.

But when it comes to pole cameras the editors appear to suffer from CSI syndrome, lusting for cameras so fantastic they can read license plates from outer space. They neglected, however, to mention the cost. $20 million? $100 million? Are we going to hang technology like that on a pole in East Baltimore?

And the editors appear to adopt the premise that unless camera videotapes can prove the identity of every criminal beyond a reasonable doubt they are not worth the investment. Sounds like they’ve been talking to Burns, but certainly not to police or prosecutors.

Even when video images cannot identify a criminal in a courtroom they can lead to his arrest. And they can demonstrate the manner in which a crime was committed, eliminating the alternative versions that defense lawyers push on juries.

If the cameras just proved how a crime occurred and left only the issue of identification, they still make for valuable tools. And if the clarity of their images can be improved at a reasonable cost, all the better.

But as they are now? They helped bring Raven Wyatt’s shooter to justice by giving police detectives the clues they needed to find him.

Bravo for pole cameras.


  1. Is your hatred of Marty Burns so great that you cannot hold your fire during the week that her mother died, and during this time when she is preparing for her mother's funeral?

    With the nature of what you do media-wise, surely you must keep up with what is published in local online and print media, as well as through your apparent extensive network of friends, and perhaps even from contacts you maintain in the SAO, I would be surprised to learn that you did not know that (unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory of "believe little of what you read, and even less of what you hear").

    Howard Jessamy

  2. Ms. Burns deserves the same level of sympathy she rendered to Anna Sowers. If she can manage to spew venom to the media the same week her mother died, she obviously handles her own mourning rather well. And, yes, Marty Burns has most definitely cultivated that level of hatred.

  3. My condolences to Margaret Burns and her family, but the death of her mother is not relevant to the subject under discussion.

    Howard Jessamy is the loyal husband of Patricia.

    Mr. Jessamy, where were you when Ms. Burns was minimizing the death-bed suffering of Zach Sowers and questioning whether his fatal injuries were directly attributable to a vicious beating at the hands of a gang of thugs?

  4. Howard Jessamy,

    Maybe if your wife bothered to prosecute Umar Burley in 2007 for felony handgun possession, an 88-year-old man wouldn't have died today as the result of Mr. Burley crashing into the poor man's car while fleeing from the cops.

    Tell me, how does she sleep at night?

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