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'Wire' creator faults Bernstein for city's crime spike

HomicideJustice SystemAnthony Batts

Former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and creator of "The Wire" David Simon is placing the blame for Baltimore's violence spike on State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, citing the effects of what Simon says is an unwillingness on the top prosecutor's part to take tough cases.

After Simon wrote a blog post last year that accused Bernstein of holding up the charging process and breaking a campaign promise, resulting in a dramatic drop in murder cases pursued, a commenter asked Simon to revisit the argument and apologize if 2012's uptick in murders proved to be an aberration.

The agreed-upon date to revisit the debate - the summer solstice - would, as it turned out, mark the beginning of one of the most violent stretches in the city's recent history, with 40 people shot and 16 killed over a period of seven days. Killings are now up 13 percent over last year's increase, with non-fatal shootings on the rise as well.

Simon does not forget, and was not about to let this pass. In a post titled, "Chickens, Coming Home," he wrote:

"A state’s attorney who fears a stet or acquittal in murder cases more than he values the fundamental deterrent of a conviction cannot help but produce more violence over time.   And while not all of the current crime rate is attributable to the stat-driven machinations of the state’s attorney — there are other systemic problems in the city, to be sure — neither will Mr. Bernstein be any part of the solution until he releases the reins and once again allows homicide commanders to share the responsibility for charging cases with his office."

Certainly, the ability of detectives to develop evidence to bring charges is as relevant to this discussion as any prosecutorial efforts to thwart them, and it is difficult to know whether police have been consistent in their ability to investigate. The unit has undergone personnel changes including four commanders in about two years and has a notable number of new detectives.

Still, statistics point to a marked shift. Calendar year figures show that the number charged fell 47 percent between former State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's last full year and Bernstein's first full year, the City Paper reported. Fiscal year data show that 123 people were charged in 2010, which dropped to 104 in 2011 and sunk even further to 74 in 2012.

But amid the scrutiny, the number rebounded in the most recent fiscal year, with 112 charged in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The numbers follow the decline and rise in homicides, though not proportionally, and the number of indicted does not necessarily refer to killings that occurred in that year.

Bernstein's office could not immediately be reached for a response to Simon's latest, but aides have insisted that nothing has changed at the state's attorney's office when it comes to charging procedures, and say police and prosecutors are working better than ever. At the highest levels, that is most certainly true - public sniping and finger-pointing about who should own crumbled cases is at a low - though The Sun has reported on friction over what cases get charged.

Police can charge using a standard of "probable cause," and Jessamy's office was criticized by police for dropping cases that prosecutors weren't confident in. During Bernstein's tenure, police have not been charging such cases in the first place, critics say.

In 2011, veteran homicide commander Maj. Terrence McLarney, who had clashed with Bernstein's office (and wrote the foreward to the re-issue of Simon's book, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"), was removed from his position and reinstated at a lower rank. His interim replacement, then-Lt. Leonard Willis, filed a memo with superiors complaining that prosecutors were "stalling and hindering" cases, listing as an example five that police believed were ready to charge but could not get approved by prosecutors, The Sun reported at the time.

The issue was brought to the forefront in the fall, when James Berry III, a once-promising boxer, was charged in a triple shooting that occurred in Bolton Hill in March 2011. At the time of the shooting, the case was not deemed strong enough to merit arresting Berry, but detectives got the green light to charge the 25-year-old with murder, after Berry became a suspect in a triple shooting that killed two brothers on West Lafayette Avenue.

Prosecutors reinterviewed witnesses in the Bolton Hill case in the wake of the new suspicions and authorized charges, several police sources said at the time.

Many in the department believed that they could have charged Berry last year, though others questioned whether the evidence was strong enough - in otherwords, it wasn't as simple as police-versus-prosecutors.

In the wake of that story, however, Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts told The Sun that he met with Bernstein about other cases that police wanted to move on, and Bernstein agreed to move on them.

Bernstein declined then to comment on the internal deliberations, and Berry has not been charged in the Lafayette Avenue case. Berry is scheduled for trial in the Bolton Hill shooting later this month.

For the record, Simon also believes a weakened media shares in the blame for not shining a brighter spotlight on the issue. 

Even with murder indictments up this year, Simon wrote that he suspects Bernstein's office is still holding up cases, but his argument in the latest blog post is that the current violence is a reflection of uncharged cases overall during the Bernstein regime. He concludes that the city has "squandered whatever momentum in crime suppression was evident two years ago."

He argues urban murder is a "recidivist dynamic, rooted in the culture of an illicit drug trade" and the most effective response is locking up killers so they "stop killing."

"When you don't, he stays on the street, and shoots people until you do lock him up." Simon also writes:

"Mr. Bernstein’s record and its net effect are now in evidence. And his belated attempts, after this was first argued last year, to rush back and charge a modestly better percentage of older cases — though they were in no way different prosecution files from when his office first passed on those cases — was reactionary, belated and telling.  When a new police commissioner comes to you, in the wake of such criticism, and personally asks you to charge five homicide cases that your office otherwise declined to prosecute, and then you agree, what does that say?  That the cases suddenly improved?  That you are an aggressive prosecutor?  That the campaign you ran against the incumbent, declaring she was not as aggressive as you would be — that this was in any way an honest critique?  Or does it affirm that your campaign rhetoric was hollow, and that you are, in fact, less aggressive now that the job is yours.  Even with Mr. Bernstein’s belated effort to charge some of the older cases, the number of homicide defendants going through the doors of the Mitchell courthouse remains about a third less than under the previous administration of the office."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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