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.


  1. Page, I applaud your work...finally someone with a backbone challenging status quo in Baltimore politics. I joined to clear up any misunderstanding(s) regarding the creation of "system all her own."

    As you may or may not recall, because when I was in the office, I believe you were housed somewhere other than the Mitchell Courthouse East. You are correct, you wouldn't really know what went on with the program and the degree of abuse that had been taking place with funding, resources and services.

    The referral process was developed as a means of accountability not exclusion. There were witnesses whose cases had been adjudicated years earlier but, because the office, before I was hired, had no idea what was going on with the program or its' participants who were still costing the program, on average, $10,000.00 a month per witness, it was necessary to create a system that would identify and/or assess victims and/or witnesses who needed "protection" as opposed to "maintanence." In most cases, witnesses were without substantiated threats and more than that most were simply unstable and in need of assistance so that they were available for trial. From homeless to substance abuse, no witness was ever turned away.

    Your colleagues, at the time, were offering services to witnesses and/or victims as a means to get them to testify... offering services that we could not deliver, bribery is what I call it. There were also "witnesses" in the program who weren't really witnesses. I later discovered this through the implementation of "a system all my own." In an effort to curb this, it became protocol for each Assistant State Attorney to fill out a referral detailing the specifics of the case, the threat(s) received, and suspects information. This information was then compared to police reports and court documents. Both the ASA and their division chief signed off on the referral and this information was then signed off by the deputy states attorney who then forwarded it to Mr. A. Crowe, State Attorney Victim Assistance Coordinator, who then disbursed funds to provide assistance. The e-mail in which Dave Collins refers to where I refused to call witnesses was not out of laziness or an over abundance of work but out of my unwillingness to bribe or make empty promises to a witness to get them to come forward. Where do you draw the line? Cash in hand, bribery, promises...I believe most, with their right hand raised, swore that they had not received before testifying but indeed had.

    Margaret Burn's statement that "Madden had set up a system where only those families who agreed to receive assistance would fill out forms for Madden's unit" is an idiotic lie. What sense does that make? The referral forms were created shortly after the Elmly Avenue murders. Due to the nature of that case and what I was able to take from meeting and interviewing witnesses, I felt that it would protect myself, the sheriffs department, the office and the city to have a letter of declination in place. Thus, the creation of the declination letter. As with the referral form, the declination letter was created and signed off by my division chief as well as the deputy state attorney before being forwarded to every unit within the circuit and district court.. All knew of its' existence except Kate Moxley I guess. When needed, I, as with the referral forms, would gladly fax a copy to anyone needing it. Whether they returned it completed or not is out of my control. In some cases, where the threats were documented, I proceeded without a referral.

    Every protection issue was brought to my attention and each underwent an individual assessment to determine what level of protection was necessary, if at all. Again, most were maintenance ( i.e. homelessness, drug abuse, food, etc.). At no time did I act as a one woman show as the final say was not mine but my division chief and/or deputy state attorney at that time.

  2. I think that there's just enough apathy in the community that Jessamy and Burns can continue to rail against the police and, it works! She gets re elected!
    Many many Baltimore citizens just don't know what can be done to stop or reduce the violence. They give up. They don't think the police care. They don't think the states attorney cares or can really be effective.
    I think many are also tired of white people who want to put black people in jail. That's the cultural / political climate that Jessamy campaigns in.
    It's as if everyone is playing a part in a bad play that's highly unlikely to have a happy ending.

  3. John--Not to worry. I've canvassed neighborhoods all over the city three or four nights a week for Gregg Bernstein. Even in black neighborhoods, there is zero enthusiasm for Jessamy. All the energy in this contest is for Gregg, and the best Jessamy can do is pray that the distinct minority of black voters who come out for every primary--we're talking 28-30 per cent of the total Democrats registered in the city--will remember her. Faced with the first real challenge of her political life, Jessamy has collapsed, politically and intellectually. Every time she opens her mouth, in live debate, on the radio, or on tv,she proclaims her astonishing ignorance of her own job. Baltimore is majority black, but the bleck majority is NOT racially chauvinist. Look at how far the negative reaction to the DiTanya McFadden spot on the Dawsons got--nowhere. No decent Baltimorean is fooled any longer by Jessamy. Do you recall when the racial chauvinists came after O'Malley in 1999, when he had the nerve as a white man to stand for mayor? Given a genuine choice between a decent white and a black crook (Lawrence Bell) or a black fool (Patricia Jessamy, black Baltimore will choose the white.

  4. @halriedl --- reading what you wrote is the best thing I have read all week, I think (speaking specifically of your canvassing report). I hadn't heard of any polls yet (anyone know if there have been any?), so I've been totally in the dark as to what city-wide support Bernstein actually has...I know there's an energy there, but I began to worry that Jessamy's usual anti-police rhetoric would appeal to just enough people already suspicious (this is based on fact -- just look at the jury nullification in this town). SO GREAT to hear that people you talk to seem unimpressed with Jessamy. I've always wondered how she kept getting re-elected; now I'm remembering that some years she actually ran unopposed! She's facing a real opponent this time. Go Bernstein!!

  5. Thin Man--The energy in this campaign remains all with Bernstein. I did 12 hours of Early Voting this week at Loch Raven library. The total turnout was weak--about 2600 over the six days. I'd say about 70 per cent of the voters I met were African-American. I met some Jessamy voters, to be sure--none of them rude in the least--but about twice as many African-Americans who were thumbs-up for Gregg. His voters are highly motivated and well organized. Whereas I see no evidence that Jessamy has any organization at all. She will have to depend on whatever the five senatorial tickets (George Della in the 46th is not supporting her)can deliver--which in a non-Presidential-year primary,is usually not much. For the Early Voting, she was well down the long Joan Carter Conway ballot in the 43rd, and she had no literature exclusive to her effort.

  6. actually, Della HAS supported her. Did you not see his letter of endorsement in the Afro...?

    These machine politicians who prop up the pathetic status quo all need to GO.