Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Live Blog of the State's Attorney Debate

Today WYPR Fm 88.1 is hosting a debate between challenger Gregg Bernstein and incumbent Patricia Jessamy for the state's attorney for Baltimore City. The state's attorney is the top prosecutor in the city. My intent is to report on the discussion as it goes along, and then offer some thoughts and observations.

12:03: Dan Rodricks, the moderator, introduces them by saying that Bernstein claims that Jessamy has the lowest rate of conviction in the state and that it's time for a change, while Jessamy touts her record on gun legislation and repeat violent offenders.

12:20: Rodricks, after reviewing their qualifications, clarifies that this is not a formal debate. He plans to throw out some questions and let callers call-in. He asks Jessamy why they should re-elect her, and she says it is to continue the progress and partnerships that she has made. She says that her focus on violent offenders has been proven by "commitments to the Department of Correction," that is, by the numbers of offenders sent to prison by Baltimore. She is running to "dispel the lies" because Baltimore is sending more people to prison than anywhere else.

She goes on to say that she formed a gun team of prosecutors, created a wiretap team, and cross-designated prosecutors as federal prosecutors. "I am tough, I am smart, I am truthful."

Bernstein replies that Jessamy over course of her tenure has "concede[d] our streets" to criminals that revolve through the doors of justice. "I will take personal responsibility" to convict criminals he says, and will not engage in the blame game. When asked how he knows that Baltimore has the lowest conviction rate in the state, he cites an Abell Foundation report on low conviction rates by juries when Baltimore city was compared with other counties.

Jessamy challenged that report as being "unscientific" and returned to her claim that prison statistics is the measuring stick.

12:38: Bernstein replies that her own statistics only show a 45% conviction rate in gun cases.

Jessamy just called Bernstein a liar, saying that "he continues to lie." She doesn't say how and in what way.

Rodricks asked Jessamy how the city would become a "police state" if Bernstein is elected, as she claimed. She begins to ramble and talks about the "natural tension" between police and prosecutors and their different burdens of proof before saying that Bernstein would be a "rubber stamp" for the police.

A citizen e-mails a question to Bernstein about how would we know that he wouldn't be a rubber stamp. Bernstein says he would work independently but also cooperatively with the police. He points out that Jessamy has, at most, successfully prosecuted 1-2 police officers over the years. But that anyone knows the two agencies need to work together.

Jessamy again says Bernstein is lying. When asked by Rodricks to compare her relationship with Bealefeld to past commissioners, she says her relationship with Bealefeld was "outstanding" until this campaign.

A caller named Marty says that it's well-known that the best place to get charged is in Baltimore, because they get the best deals and the least fight from prosecutors. Jessamy goes on again to say that most commitments to prison come from Baltimore. Rodricks points out that that could be caused by high crime or other factors. Jessamy repeated her assertion and called statements that her conviction rate is low "lies."

Bernstein brings up the Pitcairn murder case. He spoke to the witness that Jessamy said was uncooperative. Prosecutors only spoke to him once, and gave up at a preliminary hearing when they didn't even need a witness. Bernstein says this is an example of failing to properly focus efforts.

Jessamy: "He doesn't even understand how the system works." Jessamy says "it would have been better" if police had taken a statement from the victim. And says she wanted to get more witness intimidation legislation from Annapolis.

12:41: Caller from Bolton Hill asks Bernstein about citizen concerns about police conduct and lenient judges. How would Bernstein deal with that? Bernstein says we have to start somewhere, and he would become more strategic. He has watched prosecutors fail to do that, they ask for the same sentence over and over and this makes it hard for judges to make their decisions.

12:48: Jessamy again says that Bernstein has no idea what he is talking about, and that she has units in her office for certain types of cases that know exactly what they are doing.

Jessamy says they have a way to identify who the "worst of the worst" is because she is the "technology queen." She says she connects all the agencies with technology and has won an award.

Bernstein says if she is the queen, her kingdom is in shambles. Her prosecutors don't have voicemail, or blackberries. But the way to target the worst of the worst is to work with the police to identify who they are and to give prosecutors the resources they need.

12:51: Jessamy says her prosecutors identify the worst of the worst at Central Booking. Bernstein responds that the War Room, the program she is talking about, has a conviction rate of only 35%. When Rodricks asks how he knows that, he cites my study of War Room offenders. Jessamy can be heard laughing, but can't respond because Rodricks takes a call.

12:58: In response to a call from a caller, Jessamy touts her domestic violence program and how successful it is. Bernstein states that this represents a disconnect with reality, because 80% of domestic violence cases are dismissed.

Jessamy says we have to look behind the statistics. And that there are elements of the law that have hampered prosecuting domestic violence cases.

A caller asks how Bernstein is going to put people in jail without evidence. Bernstein says he believes in innocent until proven guilty. And that his focus would be on targeting the most violent criminals within the context of the law and the burden of proof. Jessamy says she is already doing that.

In response to an e-mail, Jessamy says she doesn't try cases and has 200 lawyers to do that. She could make "a splash" by going to court but manages her office and knows everything that is going on. In answer to a question about his credentials, Bernstein touts his record as a trial attorney.

Debate concluded.

My observations and comments:

First of all, whew. This was my first experience with live blogging and it was a challenge. I would suggest to anyone interested in this debate and in reaching their own conclusions as to what was said and how the candidates did, to please go to the WYPR website. I personally thought it was enlightening.

When Gregg Bernstein made his opening statement it sounded like he was reading from text, which diminished the message. But as he went on he was clearly the more relaxed and confident of the two. He cited statistics, had answers as to where he got those statistics and appeared familiar and conversant with what is going on in Jessamy's office.

And he continued to repeat that the key to being effective was proper strategy. As a matter of substance, he was exactly right.

I will caution him about this, though: if he thinks he is going to come in as state's attorney and suddenly get all his staff blackberries, he has never dealt with local government and limited budgets. That is a learning curve he will have to master quickly. To Jessamy's credit, she has dealt with a stubborn city bureaucracy for a long time and probably got about as much out it and in finding alternative sources of funding as it was possible to get. But her problem has been, as Bernstein points out, one of strategy and execution of that strategy.

Jessamy spoke in rapid cadence as though she felt stressed or lacked the time to get out all she wanted to say. Because she often used terms and concepts better understood by those within the system, I wonder how much the average citizen "got" what she was saying.

I particularly wonder how the average citizen reacted to the number of times she said Bernstein and others were "lying" and spreading "lies." I find the constant use of these terms against those who disagree with her disturbing. Her own "proof" of her success in convicting violent criminals lay solely in prison statistics. One could point out, as Rodricks did, that prison statistics might just indicate there's that much more crime in Baltimore. Talk about being an "unscientific" measure of her effectiveness.

But Jessamy insisted that those who challenge her on her conviction rate are "lying." For me, this method of debate just validates the view that Jessamy doesn't get along with people. She can't agree to disagree, or to learn from the perspective of other people. They are all liars.

Her other main retort was that Bernstein did not "understand" how the system worked. For example, she said that in the robbery case mentioned by Bernstein, she needed the victim to come to court to testify under oath at the preliminary hearing so that they could have his statement for later.

What an incredibly shocking explanation. No prosecutor wants his or her witness to testify at a preliminary hearing, subject to cross-examination and the probability of having minor differences in their later testimony used against them later at trial. Based on this debate, it is clear that Bernstein understands prosecutorial strategy far better than Jessamy.

I want to say something about the War Room. When Bernstein mentioned my report, Jessamy laughed. Perhaps she would have called me a liar, too, had she had the chance. But here's the rub: where are Jessamy's statistics? She has had the War Room case outcome data in her own database. But she never, ever looked at it or published it. And when given the chance to comment on my report by the City Paper, refused to do so.

Finally, her comment that her relationship with Police Commissioner Fred Bealefeld had been "outstanding" prior to Bernstein's campaign may have been the most revealing of all. Because in my opinion, she may actually believe this. It shows just how much authority she has ceded to her media spokesperson Margaret Burns, and how she refuses to believe that her tactics have sabotaged her relationship with the police. (It also demonstrates how professional Bealefeld has been that Jessamy thought their relationship was great until now.)

Pat Jessamy lives in a world where she does everything right, her critics are all liars and ignoramuses, and there must now be a conspiracy against her because things were hunky-dory with Bealefeld until Bernstein came along.

As I said, I found the debate illuminating.

Last post at 2:09 p.m.


  1. By saying that Baltimore doesn't need a prosecutor who rubber stamps the police she is implying that Mr. Bernstein would be a rubber stamp for the police.

    But Ms. Jessamy herself has said that Baltimore juries don't convict unless the evidence is there and so there will be no rubber stamp. If a states attorney tries to be just a rubber stamp for the police he or she will get very few convictions.

    So, she is raising fears about a police state that she herself knows can't happen.

    I did resent her saying that a former federal prosecutor "doesn't understand" the job or the law and repeatedly calling him a liar.

    I did not understand her point about commitments. If she is saying that the City incarcerates at a higher proportion than its crime rate relative to other jurisdictions, that could be because of the types of crimes that occur in other jurisdictions. If Baltimore has, as it probably does, more violent crimes, there will be more incarcerations.

    In other jurisdictions the disposition of cases might not involve jail time, but fines, restitution and community service for non-violent crimes.

    Where can statistics on her office be found? Do you know how the drop in crime in Baltimore compares to the national drop in crime?

  2. Uh, you should run for state's attorney.

  3. In answer to the question about where can we find statistics, one of the big problems with the criminal justice system is the lack of objective statistics. I wrote about this in The First Step to Change, a piece you can find if you click on the month of February.

  4. This sounds like another "entitled" politician Baltimore had leading the way up until recently. In this city that has had a one party government longer than Cuba, a little change could do some good, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."