Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shame on Who?

“No victim, no case.”

So pronounced the spokesperson for Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy after the robbery and murder of Stephen Pitcairn, explaining why prior charges brought against suspect John Wagner just four months before the murder had been dropped.

I practically choked on my breakfast reading that quote in the Sun. Prosecutors did have a victim. He was just giving them a hard time. So what? Victims and witnesses do that all the time in Baltimore. But it isn’t up to them to decide whether they will testify. It’s up to prosecutors, who have to protect the safety of everyone, not just the victim.

And they had surveillance video footage to corroborate the robbery for which Wagner was arrested. In fact, they were able to catch Wagner later using surveillance cameras as he boarded a bus. All they needed to do was get the victim onto the stand, however resistant he might feel.

But it gets worse. What the Sun story omitted was that the prior robbery charges were dropped only 19 days after they were brought. Prosecutors abandoned the case at a preliminary hearing in the District Court, a hearing to determine whether there was probable cause to charge Wagner with a felony.

Had a judge found probable cause, the case would have gone down to the Circuit Court, and no doubt would still be pending. And Wagner would have been in jail on July 25 rather than murdering Pitcairn because Commissioner Karen Daniels and Judge Theodore Oshrine had held Wagner without bail after his arrest on the robbery.

It’s even likely that prosecutors themselves recommended no bail, since Wagner qualified for the violent repeat offender (War Room) program. But as I have said repeatedly for over two years now, Jessamy ignored the War Room program once offenders got past the bail review stage. The prosecutor handling the hearing failed to recognize or care that Wagner—whose long arrest record began with two 1993 robberies and who was now on probation for a serious domestic assault—warranted a little extra effort.

But it's gets worse still. Because the prosecutor didn't even need the victim at the preliminary hearing. He could have asked a police detective to testify, because hearsay is admissible at preliminary hearings. And if he knew he had a rogue judge that forces victims to testify, he could have sent the police to get the victim or sought a body attachment (a warrant for witnesses.) He also could have sent the case to Circuit Court prosecutors for a grand jury subpoena to the victim and an indictment. It's not as if they didn't know where the victim lived.

All the prosecutor did instead was go to court and ask meekly for a one-week postponement. He wanted to combine Wagner's case with his co-defendant's case and get the victim to court for both, promising to drop the cases if the victim didn't show up. He acquiesced weakly when Judge Yvonne Holt-Stone, showing as much indifference as the prosecutor, denied the postponement.

And Pat Jessamy stands by it.

Remember the kidnapping and robberies in the Guilford neighborhood, when the suspect was on probation for committing a robbery in the same area? In that prior case prosecutors did have a cooperative victim yet failed to ask for jail time. Jessamy’s explanation? The uncorroborated victim testimony was "minimal" evidence, something her office never bothered to tell the victim.

So Jessamy can’t prove cases with cooperating witnesses without corroboration. And she can’t prove cases with resistant witnesses despite corroboration from a video.

But then, she has dissed surveillance cameras since they first came out, using them to attack the police for wasting money. And no doubt this dropped robbery case is part of the statistics she uses to show that surveillance cameras don't lead to convictions.

Jessamy doesn’t even try. That’s all the public wants. Try.

But Jessamy prefers to accuse those who criticize her of “politicizing” a tragedy, specifically Gregg Bernstein, her challenger this election who called the murder “preventable.” She says he should be “ashamed” of himself.

But if he is right, and the murder really was preventable, who should be ashamed of whom?

Bernstein is right. The April robbery case absolutely should not have been dropped at the preliminary hearing stage. The culture of the city prosecutor’s office, the one that Jessamy has directed for 16 years, led directly to Wagner’s freedom to commit murder.

And so did the culture of a judiciary that refuses to take probation violations seriously. Judge John Howard failed to incarcerate Wagner at a hearing that took place only two days before Wagner was charged with the April robbery. It was Wagner’s second probation violation, this time for stealing a car while on Howard's probation. But Howard put him back on the street. It's truly unbelievable.

And par for the course. Judge Howard isn’t alone. I wrote about the problem in 2008, right about the time that Howard was putting Wagner on probation, in The Empty Threat of Probation.

It’s all shameful.  And if the voters don’t act, the shame will keep on coming.


  1. thank you for this blog! It's great for a lay person to gain an understanding of how the baltimore criminal justice system - or whatever you want to call it - works. I live in charles village and saw all the politicians last evening at the press conference. Except for Bealefeld, all I heard was a bunch of nothing ...Pat Jessamy was there but didn't have the nerve to stand near the podium with all of the others. No Judge Howard either...not that I expected him to show. Anyway, I just discovered your blog and look forward to reading it. Thanks for educating us!

  2. Thanks so much for this blog! As someone who lives in Charles Village just a few feet from where Stephen Pitcairn was murdered my outrage is only growing. We have established a facebook page for residents who want to talk more about the issues facing the community. Please pass this along if you would.!/pages/Charles-Villagers-For-Peaceful-Living/114587818594142?ref=sgm

  3. Page proves once again that she is our town's foremost crime journalist and prime conscience when it comes to public safety. And she has, in her blast at O'Malley for reappointing such a sorry excuse for a judge as Nathan Braverman, anticipated today's report in the Sun, which reports the Governor's coyness toward Gregg Bernstein's challenge to Jessamy. If O'Malley is truly moved by Stephen Pitcairn's murder--among many others--he does everything he can to help Gregg. But don't look for that to happen--now it's all about saving O'Malley's own skin. I surmise that O'Malley will try to have it both ways--he won't endorse anyone for state's attorney, which to my mind is an endorsement of the status quo, namely, Jessamy. I'm no fan of Ehrlich, but Martn O'Malley is about one thing--Martin O'Malley. He's a liar and a hypocrite. Today I saw a great bumpersticker: "Furlough O'Malley."

  4. So what's the incentive for Jessamy's office to continue to release criminals and not push to prosecute? Is it too much work? Incompetance? Or some feeling of social justice by giving them another chance?

  5. One important issue that needs to be addressed: Until we clear the criminal justice system and jails of nonviolent drug offenders, terrible mistakes like this will continue to occur. It's time to decriminalize and medicalize low-level drug offenses and free up the jail cells for violent thugs like the two that murdered Pitcairn.

    When we send a low-level drug offender to prison, we're creating a career criminal and eliminating a spot for serial, violent offenders like Wagner. Jails should be for violent, dangerous criminals, not for warehousing the city's young black men who are selling drugs because they can't find jobs.

  6. Could the prosecutors have used the April robbery/assault to again try to revoke Wagner's probation on the Domestic Violence suspended sentence? Did they need to have a judge find probable cause at the preliminary hearing? Would they have to wait for a conviction on the April case before they could ask for a revocation of probation?