Sunday, August 29, 2010
The Dawson Tragedy and its Failed Response
Just as I was about to write a blog on state senator Nathaniel McFadden and the 2002 Dawson murders, presto! There he was all over the news, talking about the Dawson murders.
But my perspective differs radically from McFadden's. He accused state's attorney candidate Gregg Bernstein of exploiting the deaths of the Dawsons by airing an ad featuring the former witness protection coordinator for incumbent Pat Jessamy. In it, she criticized Jessamy's lack of effort to protect the Dawsons.
McFadden, who has endorsed Jessamy, railed about the impact of the ad on the Dawson relatives, even though he hadn't talked to any of them. And the one relative who could be contacted by the Baltimore Sun wasn't upset at all. So who was exploiting whom?
But I had something much more fundamental in mind for this blog.
When the seven Dawsons were firebombed to death in retaliation for reporting on drug-dealing activity, it was Senator McFadden, who represented their neighborhood, putting himself in the forefront of the movement to 'do something.' He helped spearhead and fund the creation of the "War Room" to identify and focus upon violent offenders, and was visible at press conferences and tours when the War Room began operation.
But politicians move on, and so did McFadden once the spotlight faded. It apparently doesn't matter to him now that his response to the terrible Dawson tragedy went down the toilet for lack of effort by the person he endorses, Jessamy. He shows the same lack of courage as the other city politicians who have either endorsed Jessamy or said nothing, even when in a position to know better.
But the Dawsons were murdered in McFadden's very own district. He told his constituents that he found a way to improve their safety through the War Room. And then paid it no attention whatsoever. Every year its funding got renewed without a meaningful review by McFadden or any other legislator. Frankly, nobody cared. They all moved on, until Bernstein's ad appeared.
But the War Room, the response to the Dawson tragedy, failed city residents, and one need look no further than the high profile murders of off-duty police officer Troy Chesley and Stephen Pitcairn to see it. I have written on these cases before in Baltimore's Failed War Room and Shame on Who? But to sum it up briefly:
Brandon Grimes, the murderer of Chesley, was out on bail for two handgun cases at the time of the murder. Although notified by the War Room of his arrest on the second handgun charge while pending the first handgun case, Jessamy's gun unit did nothing to revoke his first bail. War Room arrest notices specifically urged trial prosecutors to try to revoke bail in cases like this, but were ignored in every instance.
The accused murderer of Pitcairn, John Wagner, had been in custody a few months before the murder for a robbery that was caught on videotape. Although he met War Room criteria, prosecutors dropped the case at the first hearing because the victim was not there, even though he wasn't needed. And prosecutors allowed Wagner's probation violation hearing to be dismissed without ever bringing the videotape into evidence. Had probation judge John Howard seen that videotape perhaps he wouldn't have let Wagner go.
Jessamy has been boasting this campaign about having a unit dedicated to probation hearings. But she had always had prosecutors attend probation hearings. What was new was that Martin O'Malley, as mayor, had given Jessamy funding for four new prosecutors specifically to focus on violent offenders at probation hearings.
As head of the War Room, I was excited. I had sent War Room prosecutors on several occasions to probation hearings, but could not do it on a systematic basis due to staff limitations. I immediately requested a meeting with Jessamy's Circuit Court administrator and presented a plan to introduce evidence normally used only for trials directly at probation hearings for War Room offenders.
Jessamy's administrator refused. First she said she didn't have enough staff because she was supposed to cover all probation hearings. In other words, her vision was to simply do what had been done before with different personnel. When I persisted, she refused again because "the judges won't like it."
Finally I said I would do it myself. Only to have her prohibit War Room prosecutors from taking evidence to probation hearings. Yes, that really happened.
Now Jessamy claims that she does focus on violent offenders at probation hearings. That began to be true in recent years for federal targets, targets like Damian Wilson. But for state War Room offenders like Wagner, well, we can see the results for ourselves. It's still business as usual. The kind of business that was done at the time the Dawsons were murdered, way back in 2002.
But that's okay with McFadden. Heck, it's even okay that Jessamy walked out on his bill to strengthen penalties against illegal handguns. Because McFadden is doing politics as usual. And politics is more concerned with the perception of results, not their reality.
When Gregg Bernstein brings up tragic murders to illustrate why we need a new state's attorney, that's not exploitation. That's providing information to voters about the very person who is charged, along with the police, of making the city safer. It's information that Jessamy has controlled for years, and that McFadden and his political colleagues have enabled to remain in the dark.
No Accountability, As Usual
I did not work with Jessamy's witness protection unit and cannot provide any insight as to how it worked with respect to the Dawson case. But I hear the same old failure to assume accountability coming from the mouth of Margaret Burns, Jessamy's spokesperson.
Ditanya Madden, Jessamy's witness protection coordinator, told the Sun that the Dawson family protection needs were never brought to her attention. According to the Sun's interview of Burns, that's because "Madden had set up a system where only those families who agreed to receive assistance would fill out forms for Madden's unit."
So Madden had set up the system all her own? Either Jessamy agreed with it or exercised so little supervision she didn't know about it. One way or another, Jessamy enabled a witness protection unit to operate without having all protection issues brought to its attention.
Perhaps that's justifiable. But to put the responsibility on Madden the way Burns did, isn't. It's exactly the lack of accountability that characterizes Jessamy and her performance as state's attorney.