Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just the Facts, Please

The Baltimore Sun editors weighed in on the city state's attorney election last week after fund-raising reports showed substantial support for challenger Gregg Bernstein. In it, they made sure to blunt Bernstein's two major criticisms of incumbent Pat Jessamy without addressing any of her own claims.

First they said that the whole system, not just Jessamy, is to blame for low conviction rates. (I will address that one soon.) They also surmised that voters don't care about her poor relationship with police commissioners these last 10 years because they re-elected her in 2006 (over an unknown candidate) and must therefore like her "feisty" attitude. They even mentioned their own endorsement of Jessamy four years ago, failing to note their emphatic endorsement of another candidate the election before that.

But my favorite part was how they urged voters to make up their minds based on "all the facts." That's funny, because the Sun has done so little over the years to give us facts about Jessamy's performance. Instead it has focused on conflict-based reporting, the kind that it now wants voters to ignore.

The editors cautioned voters about making too much of yard sign controversies and Jessamy's ill-advised analogy comparing the city courts to public schools. They asked who "would do the best job making the city's streets safer?"

That's the right question. But what guidance are we getting from the Sun? Not much before that editorial. And after it, a front-page article on the race factor, as if that's news to anybody when white and black candidates square off. But for those voters more interested in performance over race, what "facts" and "evidence" does the Sun intend to offer up?

For years now local media outlets have fed off stories spooned to them by Jessamy's office. In Feeding the Press I chronicled an incident where Jessamy spokesperson Margaret Burns extolled an arrest that, upon closer examination, revealed the opposite of what she intended. It showed that Jessamy's office could have but failed to do anything to take a violent criminal off the street prior to his beating up two women. Doesn't that theme sound familiar?

That was two years ago, and nothing has changed. Jessamy issued a press release last week boasting about a prison sentence one Damian Wilson got for violating probation. It seems Wilson was a target of the federal Violent Repeat Offender (VRO) program after citizens complained about his drug-dealing activity, and city prosecutors were tasked with doing something because he was on a city probation.

But a little work on the facts behind the press release reveals that Wilson is a classic example of a revolving door criminal...that his belated incarceration should be credited to the leadership of federal prosecutors...and that Jessamy did nothing meaningful on her own.

Fortunately the City Paper did the work, and here's the story: Wilson accumulated a series of arrests beginning at age 18. (Who knows what his juvenile record told prosecutors.) Car theft, drug dealing, drug dealing with a gun, handgun possession, resisting arrest, assault, armed robbery--the typical pattern of a dangerous offender. None of the criminal charges resulted in convictions. But in 2002, at age 28, Wilson was finally convicted of drug dealing and got--what else?--probation, with six years in prison suspended.

Wilson went out and picked up some assault and harassment charges against his girlfriend, which prosecutors dropped. But police nabbed him again for selling drugs. And all he got was a 2004 plea deal that bundled his probation violation with his new felony drug case for a grand total of two years.

In 2006 Wilson was convicted of driving on a suspended license with no consequence, followed by some more domestic violence incidents. But in 2007 police nailed him again selling drugs, and this time he got...

12 years! Can it be? Nope, 11 years were suspended, and he served the one year he got while waiting in jail for his case to resolve.

Wilson was arrested several more times, including another attempt to sell drugs, and was convicted on two minor charges with little consequence. The judge who had him on probation issued a warrant, but Wilson was allowed to stay on the street while he racked up his arrests. It wasn't until May, 2010 that another warrant for violating probation was issued and Wilson finally put away. And only because the federally-led VRO program got involved.

all of this fiasco Jessamy's fault? Probably not. But with Wilson's criminal history staring her in the face she allowed multiple plea bargains on drug-selling cases that kept him on the street and criminally active. And did nothing to violate his probation as he piled up more arrests for two more years.

Facts like these can be found everywhere. They are why Bernstein is running, why so many have contributed so much to his campaign so fast, and why the police commissioner put a Bernstein campaign sign in his yard.

But it doesn't take experts to recognize these facts. Citizens in the community can see the evidence that the Sun still seems to be searching for, when characters like Wilson keep showing up on their street corners.

They know who's not making them safer.


  1. Page I understand what you are saying about Wilson but I'd prefer to see more focus on violent offenders.

  2. John, thank you for this comment. It gives me the chance to clarify a point I tried to make in The Myth that Undermines the Criminal Justice System. ( Those who sell drugs very often are violent. And very often they get away with violence for intimidation factors, etc. What the system fails to do is distinguish the violent from the non-violent. Wilson's arrest history had violence written all over it--guns, robbery, etc. And for him to come to the attention of the Violent Repeat Offender program, there was likely inside information the police had on him. Sometimes narcotics violations are the only way to get them--just as the feds got Al Capone for tax violations. The narcotics trade feeds violence. The system fails to distinguish those doing it for profit (using violence) from those doing it to exist.