Wednesday, September 1, 2010

In Her Own Words

"I don't do conviction rates because I think conviction rates are smoke and mirrors."
Patricia Jessamy, State's Attorney for Baltimore City, 8/30/10

I didn't think Jessamy's appearance on the Marc Steiner Show was going to reveal anything new or interesting, especially when Anthony McCarthy, the co-host, lobbed softballs for her to hit.

He recounted, for example, how the citizens of Charles Village gathered after the murder of Stephen Pitcairn and clamored to hear from Jessamy. I thought he was going to ask why she declined to speak to them. Instead, he wanted to know why they put everything "on [her] shoulders." When he asked about her relationship with the police, it was to find out how the police could be trained to bring her better cases. You get the picture.

But Steiner wouldn't let Jessamy off the hook so easy. When he persisted about her inability to get along with police commissioners she blamed the media for creating that perception, which fit perfectly with a statement she made in another context: "I don't accept blame." She never does.

But it was near the end of the interview that Steiner exposed the essence of Jessamy, her failure to be accountable when it comes to violent criminals. He said he wanted to ask Jessamy a question she had "never answered" namely, what happened to the War Room offenders, the "worst of the worst."

"I don't do conviction rates because I think conviction rates are smoke and mirrors."

Oh, my goodness. Prosecutors charge cases when they believe the evidence shows that a defendant is guilty, and then their job is to convict. It's a fundamental measuring stick of their performance.

Not that conviction rates tell the whole story. For example, I would view with suspicion a prosecutor that boasts a 100% conviction rate since it suggests that he or she will only try slam dunk cases, not those with reluctant witnesses or other obstacles.

But Jessamy doesn't "do" conviction rates at all, meaning she doesn't have to explain anything to anyone. Instead she created a novel, fanciful theory of measuring her success: what percentage of those committed to prison come from Baltimore.

Jessamy trotted this out for the first time in her WYPR debate with Gregg Bernstein, her main challenger. It's her story and she's sticking to it. She told Steiner that 31% of charged cases in Maryland come from Baltimore but 60% of the prison commitments come from there. Therefore Baltimore criminals go to prison twice as much as other citizens for serious offenses, giving her the highest conviction rate in the state.

Talk about smoke and mirrors. Her statistics don't account for the fact that she drops 20-25% of cases before they are charged, something other counties can't do because they don't have prosecutors in a central booking facility like Baltimore's. And that those cases are the minor kind for which people don't go to prison.

And she tells us nothing about the type of crime and rate of crime in each county, or how Baltimore's unique rate of violent crime rate skews the percentages. It boggles the mind to hear her rely on prison percentages, especially when she has her own statistics right in front of her.

But that, of course, is her Achilles heel. For years she ignored the War Room and its mission to focus on violent offenders, and now she's stuck with its sorry conviction rate. And Bernstein cites her own reports to support his claim that in 2010 she convicted only a third of those she charged with illegal gun crimes.

So Jessamy is running as fast as she can from her conviction rates, using the smoke and mirrors of prison percentages. When did we ever hear her tout them before? Not until someone exposed her performance.

She made other interesting claims during the Steiner Show.
Like how she invented the federal Exile program, and how she changed the national focus of prosecutors from drug interdiction to violence. Jessamy deserves about as much credit for these claims as Al Gore does for inventing the internet.

She claimed she knew how to try cases and didn't need to "grandstand" by doing it now. But Jessamy never prosecuted violent offenders. She was first hired in Baltimore to handle white collar fraud cases, and after just a few years doing that became the deputy state's attorney in charge of administration, then State's Attorney. She hasn't tried a case for 22 years, but claimed she advises prosecutors about courtroom matters.

I never saw her do it, but perhaps things have changed in the 32 months since I retired from her office. Perhaps she gave courtroom advice to the prosecutor who dropped the John Wagner robbery case, leaving Wagner free to murder a young Hopkins researcher in a subsequent robbery. She certainly stands by it, insisting to a caller that the victim had to testify under oath at a preliminary hearing for her to proceed with the case. When any other competent prosecutor would have done everything possible to avoid the victim's testimony at the hearing.

And finally, when asked if there was anything that she could have done better, Jessamy resorted to her old lack-of-resources complaint, citing furloughs and vacancies that impede her job.

But that hasn't stopped her from employing a $102,000 a year media spokesperson. And an assistant to that spokesperson who makes $75,000, more than many prosecutors. That's for an office of only 400 people. The police department, an agency that's in the news every day, with a police and civilian force of nearly 4,000 people, employs a director of public affairs who makes less than six figures.

But these are corollary issues next to the fundamental revelation of the Steiner interview. And that's that Pat Jessamy doesn't "do" accountability.


  1. I think Margaret Burns every cent of her $102,000! Look at the effort she has to make to put a positive spin on all of the States Attorney's Office screw ups! It takes a lot of time and thought to come up with new and novel ways to blame the Police for all of the mistakes or, in the case of the young man that got himself beaten to death a couple of years ago, his widow! John

  2. You only need probable cause to charge a case, but then you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. If a witness changes stories or admits he lied during the prosecution, which happens all too often with city cases, how on earth are conviction rates meaningful? The job of the prosecutor is to do the right thing and get the best result for the state, that result does not always mean a conviction. Often times our juries do not trust the police and some juries will not convict if you only have the testimony of police and that is a fact. You still charge the case and prosecute it, but half the time the jury won't see it your way no matter how effective you are or the police were. If you gauge effectiveness by conviction rate you encourage weak plea deals and malicious prosecutions for prosecutors who only want the GUILTY and not JUSTICE.

  3. As I acknowledged, conviction rates are not the end-all-be-all measure of a prosecutor's office. But they are very important indicators of what is happening. Rates that are consistently low suggest either inappropriate charging or prosecutorial ineptness. Rates that are very high, perhaps not enough of a willingness to try (e.g. taking no for an answer from reluctant witnesses.) Without knowing the rates, though, a prosecutor doesn't know whether there may be a problem. And Jessamy charges her own cases. If she is not convicting two-thirds of these cases, she needs to find out why, not ignore it.

  4. Paige, is there a publicly available database of cases that come to the SA that shows outcomes?

  5. John, there is a publicly available database of cases but it cannot be searched by the public for the purpose of gathering statistics. (See my article "Judicial Information Suppression.") However, Jessamy's office has the ability to search it and to organize and review outcomes.