By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun
10:15 PM EDT, August 30, 2011
Baltimore city homicide investigators say their cases are being "stalled and hindered" by prosecutors not giving the go-ahead to arrest murder suspects, according to a memo sent to top commanders.
The memo, compiled by the homicide unit's acting commander, Lt. Leonard Willis, points to five cases in which police are ready to make arrests and are waiting on prosecutors. Under a long-standing agreement in the city, prosecutors review evidence before police make an arrest in homicide cases. The memo, whose contents were shared with The Baltimore Sun, concludes that procedures at the state's attorney's office are "not marrying up cohesively with the police department's mission."
The department's storied homicide unit has been under mounting pressure in recent months — the rate at which detectives are solving cases this year is on track to be one of the lowest in the unit's history, and a longtime commander was recently ousted without explanation.
State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, who won election last fall pledging a stronger working relationship with police and a greater willingness to take on challenging cases, declined through a spokesman to comment. When asked why the murder cases highlighted in the memo remain open, the spokesman, Mark Cheshire, said it would be "grossly inappropriate to comment on the status of pending investigations."
Meanwhile, the Police Department's top brass played down the internal memo. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III's spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, characterized the complaints about prosecutors as the "personal opinion of some investigators" who he said have a "very narrow view" of the process. He said the unit had been asked by commanders to compile the memo in response to concerns about open cases and said that the issues were "being addressed."
In a rare rebuke of the department's own officers, Guglielmi criticized homicide detectives for making arrests in only 43 percent of cases this year. Bealefeld has "challenged" homicide detectives to improve that rate, which he considers "a concern," Guglielmi said.
"More than half the people are getting away with murder," Guglielmi said.
While on the campaign trail last year, Bernstein criticized the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy, saying that while some cases might not be strong enough, a prosecutor must "have the courage" to take a shot on a tough case in order to send a message to violent offenders.
He took issue in particular with her office declining to take on cases with only one witness, vowing last fall to "review all single-witness murder cases personally and take witnesses at their word when weighing the decision to prosecute those charged with murder."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union and a former homicide detective, said that while the Fraternal Order of Police wants "continued cooperation" between the Police Department and the state's attorney's office, the top brass also should back their officers. Cherry said detectives need to be need to be able to lock up violent criminals and then work with prosecutors to strengthen cases.
We "support our police officers and detectives on the front line who are making arrests to take these criminals off the street, Cherry said in an email, "and we would hope the BPD stands firmly behind the men and women they entrust to do just that."
While the murder rate in Baltimore has tumbled since 2007, last year reaching its lowest mark since the late 1980s, homicide detectives are struggling to solve cases.
In July, the Police Department removed the commander of the homicide unit, Terrence McLarney, a 30-year veteran investigator. Sources in the department say no reason was given within the unit or to McLarney himself. McLarney has since been reinstated and assigned to a midnight shift in a patrol district.
When he was still at the helm of the unit, McLarney had defended the unit's work, noting that the situation mirrors a national trend of declining clearance rates. Crime experts cite less cooperation from witnesses, especially in drug cases.
In 2008, police solved 35 percent of the homicides in Chicago, 22 percent in New Orleans and 21 percent in Detroit, according to a report by the Scripps-Howard News Service. Yet authorities solved 75 percent of killings in Philadelphia, 92 percent in Denver and 94 percent in San Diego. Baltimore's rate then was 46 percent.
The family of Phylicia Barnes, the missing North Carolina teenager whose disappearance made national news, started a petition last week demanding to know why police had not made an arrest in her killing. More than 700 people have signed the online petition. And on Monday night, family and friends of Irene Logan, a 91-year-old woman fatally stabbed to death in her Northeast Baltimore home, held a vigil to call attention to the case and asked for witnesses to come forward.
The internal Baltimore police memo outlines five cases in which detectives say they have one or more witnesses and believe they have enough evidence to charge the suspects. But they say prosecutors are dragging their feet.
In one homicide case, police say they have seven witnesses — including four eyewitnesses who picked the suspect out of photo lineups and three witnesses who said the suspect confessed to the murder.
In another, a triple shooting in which one person was killed, police say one of the surviving victims identified the shooter and the second could not make an identification.
The acting commander, Willis, wrote in the memo that prosecutors have requested that detectives bring witnesses to them after they conduct interviews. That prosecutor is then assigned to the case to see it through to trial, a change from the past when supervisors reviewed evidence. He concluded that that additional legwork has too often been derailed by "scheduling conflicts."
Willis declined to comment for this article.
Police in Maryland are not required to get approval from prosecutors before filing charges. But for a decade, under an informal agreement, police have refrained from charging murder cases until prosecutors review the evidence first.
Jessamy had long pushed for explicit rules that would prevent police from charging various types of serious cases unless they received approval from prosecutors, but police and city officials pushed back and the effort failed.
Both police and prosecutors stressed that they have a better working relationship than ever and are constantly in communication to make improvements. Cheshire, the Bernstein spokesman, said the prosecutor's goal is to "build stronger cases for prosecution."
That was often the refrain from Jessamy, who was characterized as an obstructionist by a string of police commissioners and then-Mayor Martin O'Malley.
When Bernstein criticized her for not taking cases with only one witness — an issue that formed the basis of one of his television advertisements — Jessamy said she never had a policy of outright rejecting such cases. But, she said, "it doesn't do anybody any good to take cases to trial without sufficient evidence, because then they can never be tried again."
"When a prosecutor says 'We need this and this and this,' it's trying to get the best cases to get the best results. I think it's constructive tension," Jessamy said at a candidate forum.
Bernstein went on to defeat Jessamy, ending her 15-year tenure at the helm of the city state's attorney's office.
He is working to implement a number of changes, including a community prosecution model that assigns prosecutors to geographic areas.
His office has dropped at least one murder case brought by city police. In January, detectives charged 31-year-old Hassan Muhammed with first-degree murder in the killing of Cherrie Gammon near Leakin Park. Charging documents cited "witnesses" who said Muhammed was one of three men who took Gammon from her home and shot her in the head. The witnesses said Gammon had been working as an informant.
Six weeks later, prosecutors dropped the case before bringing it to an indictment, saying the investigation was "continuing." No additional charges have been brought in the case.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.
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