Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bad judge, Bad bail review..and then there's Prevas

Reporter Justin Fenton was attending the bail review of a high-profile case when he caught the bail review of one William Campbell. And from that we get a column from Peter Hermann about the unfairness of the bail review system.

Hermann had something good to write about, but it wasn't about the unfairness of the bail review

Hermann (and Fenton in his blog) describe a bail review where a defendant had his bail amount tripled when he tried to represent himself. Cue Doug Colbert, the law professor who thinks Marylanders should pay for lawyers for all arrested persons before a bail commissioner. And of course, Colbert tells Hermann that a lawyer would have made all the difference.

Except that in Baltimore a lawyer was already supposed to be representing Campbell. Under a funding agreement with the state, the public defender's office represents jailed defendants who don't post their initial bails and appear before a judge to review those bails. Hermann and Fenton don't tell us why the assistant public defender in court that day didn't speak for Campbell.

Did Campbell refuse public defender representation, as some defendants do? Did he fail to cooperate? Did jail officers deny access to a lawyer? Did the public defender's office screw up? Without this piece of the story, we can't draw any conclusions about what difference "the right to a lawyer" made or could have made for Campbell.
The reporters also don't give us enough facts about Campbell's background and charges to suggest he could have gotten his bail lowered enough to make it. [Subsequent to my original post, I found out more about Campbell. See More to the Story, below.]

Lacking all the facts, this isn't a story about a defendant railroaded by a speeding locomotive of a bail review system, as Hermann tells it. It's really a story about a bad judge.

When a private lawyer predicted to Fenton that Judge Charles Chiapparelli would raise Campbell's bail to "no bail" after Campbell raised "a fuss", it meant that he had seen Chiapparelli in action before. Chiapparelli has a mean little streak, and it comes out when defendants interfere with his first purpose in court: to get out of there as soon as possible.

I mentioned Chiapparelli in The Greatest Part-time Job in the World, Part I racing through his docket so he could leave for the day at 12:15. I left out a little scene I witnessed that's relevant to tell now. A man pleaded not guilty to the charges of driving through a stop sign and failing to yield the right of way. After the police officer gave her side of the story, the man testified that he stopped for the sign but because it was set so far back he only looked like he ran it. He then started to explain his failure to yield but Chiapparelli cut him off, finding him not guilty of the stop sign violation, guilty of failing to yield, and giving him probation before judgment (which meant no points on his driving record.)

The man protested that he hadn't had a chance to speak about the second charge. An angry Chiapparelli ordered the court clerk to look up the man's driving record (which he didn't do for anyone else) and ranted about the ungrateful man's attitude. Message to everyone else in courtroom: shut up.

Chiapparelli's explanation to Hermann for raising Campbell's bail was that if a defendant talks then he looks "more closely at the facts in the case." Apparently it wasn't important to look closely at them at the beginning of bail review, when the defendant's liberty and public safety should have been just as much a concern. Chiapparelli doesn't have time for defendants who want to talk. It's next case, next case, then he's outta there.

A couple of more points about the Hermann/Fenton pieces:

1. Judge Alfred Nance did not rule that "Maryland's anachronistic system that emphasizes speed over fairness needs reform." Please. This is interpretative license taken way too far. Nance ruled that defendants have a right to a lawyer at a hearing where a commissioner sets an initial bail (based on his questionable interpretation of a Supreme Court case.)

2. Fenton wrote that "a pretrial services official and the prosecutor got to talk about what bail should be set for Campbell" before Judge Chiapparelli increased the bail without hearing from Campbell. Some could take this to mean that defendants are routinely railroaded.

The pretrial services official is a neutral party charged with investigating the defendant's ties to the community and making recommendations to city judges about whether to release defendants. And prosecutors speak at a minority of bail reviews in the city (and rarely in the rest of the state.) They are funded by War Room funds to focus on violent offenders. Only occasionally will a prosecutor appear without a defense attorney because the public defender is supposed to represent city defendants. It is far more often the other way around.

I don't oppose lawyers at bail reviews, by the way (which is different from lawyers at the time bails are set by commissioners) so long as the public defender's office doesn't get a zillion more dollars to staff bail reviews. They already are under-employed in the district offices and can spare the time. I think they can make a difference for some defendants who can be safely released after further reflection and investigation. I just don't think the Campbell incident makes the case, though I'm glad to see Judge Chiapparelli exposed.

I promised to offer my own views on what reforms are needed for the bail system. I hope to start on that next time.


Judge John N. Prevas

In striking contrast to lazy judges like Chiapparelli, there was Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas, a man passionately dedicated to the law, to justice, and to his job. While controversial at times due mainly to his manner, Prevas could never be criticized for his work ethic and devotion to making legally correct decisions. In poor health for many years, Prevas refused to retire, continuing to judge through considerable pain.

Judge Prevas died yesterday, with his boots on. He will be missed.


More to the Story

Subsequent to my original posting, I obtained this statement of charges against Campbell:

[Police officer responds for a domestic assault call.] Upon arrival, I observed a black female...crying in the living room...[She] advised me that her boyfriend assaulted her by pushing her around and choking her while in the top floor bedroom. [She] also advised me that herself and her boyfriend were having a dispute. Her boyfriend started to push her around the bedroom. [The victim] landed on her bed and her boyfriend got on top of her and began choking her with both of his hands around her neck. [She] could not breathe and began to get light-headed as a result of being choked. [Her] ten-year-old daughter walked into the bedroom and observed the suspect assaulting her mother. An anonymous neighbor also came into [the house] as a result of hearing screaming. The suspect let go of [the victim] after hearing the anonymous [neighbor] inside the dwelling yelling for the victim. [The daughter] called 911...

Once I entered the location, I located the suspect in the top level hallway. After ordering him downstairs, same gave me a name of Michael Smith...Further investigation revealed his that the suspect's name is Willliam Campbell...I observed numerous bruises and scratches around the neck and chest areas of the victim...
So Campbell allegedly assaulted his girlfriend by strangulation in front of her daughter. He gave a phony name to the police officer. He has two prior convictions for assault, violating probation in one of them. He had prior charges for armed robbery dismissed, and was recently acquitted of illegal possession of handgun.

No wonder his bail was raised. Too bad Chiapparelli only read the facts when Campbell spoke up. Rather than creating a call for bail reform, he might have allowed Campbell back on the street where he could further harm the victim, leading to a call for domestic violence reform.


  1. Page, thanks for explaining what really happened in Chiapparreli's courtroom. When I read the Sun article, I thought, boy did Mr. Hermann miss the boat on the real issue in the incident.

    But, as you probable expect, I take issue with your comment that the Office of the Public Defender "already [is] under-employed in the district offices and can spare the time." I'd like more evidence to support that statement. Nevertheless, great article.

  2. I am sorry to hear of the loss of Judge John Prevas. There was never a harder working judge in the city courts. I remember when he was an assistant state's attorney. He would park his car every day in a "no parking" zone on a little side street near the court house. Most days he would get a ticket from the sometimes overzealous parking control officer. He would always pay the ticket and never complain. He told me that it was cheaper to pay the fine for an occasional ticket than to pay to park in a lot.

  3. Page - How nicely you captured the essence of Judge Pevas's career in a concise tribute!

    My wife joined the fraternity of Prevas clerks fresh out of law school, which entitled her and her future family to a lifetime of avuncular support in all matters professional and personal from the Judge and the Professor.

    I never knew the world of his courtroom, but I know everyone who entered got a fair and considered hearing from the wise, solicitous, kind and generous Judge Prevas.

    - Steve Lebowitz, Annapolis