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Lost in jail, defendants wait weeks for chance at freedom

Shykill Brewer was arrested on a misdemeanor gun charge days before Christmas. He should have been able to post bail in plenty of time to celebrate with his infant son and the rest of his family, but instead spent six weeks in jail.

Under court rules, defendants should have a chance to post bail or ask a judge for release within 24 hours, or as soon as courts are open. It took 43 days for Brewer. A judge finally set his bail at $100,000, and Brewer's family soon secured his release.

"It felt crazy," recalled Brewer, 21. "I didn't even know my charges. It really felt like I was just sitting."

Brewer is among dozens of Baltimore suspects who have been detained for days with no chance at release, after being charged directly by prosecutors instead of by police. Officials say the unusual strategy is key to taking down major criminal organizations, but they also acknowledge problems that have led to long delays.

In the 205 cases initiated last year by the office of State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, 20 percent of defendants waited more than five days for an initial appearance in court, according to a Baltimore Sun review. One man waited nearly two months.

Nicholas Panteleakis, a defense attorney whose client waited almost a week for a bail review, said that the "way the whole system is dealing with the issue is troubling."

He added: "A lot of these guys really had their rights trampled on by Bernstein. People don't understand how bad it is in jail."

By indicting defendants directly, prosecutors are bypassing the regular procedure in which police make an arrest and lower courts follow well-established procedures for the earliest stages of a case. Most people charged by prosecutors first appear in downtown courtrooms, which typically handle more serious allegations and set their schedules weeks in advance.

That can lead to delays for defendants awaiting an initial appearance, generally their first chance for release pending trial. Even for suspects already in custody on other charges, such hearings offer a crucial opportunity to review allegations and meet with public defenders for the first time.

When prosecutors decide to send a defendant to Circuit Court, it's their responsibility to arrange the hearings. Elizabeth Embry, a deputy state's attorney in charge of policy, said the delays have a number of causes.

Some cases were held up because the defendant was already in custody, she said, some by logistical problems and others by errors. She acknowledged the need to improve, but said the large number of other defendants charged alongside Brewer after a wide-ranging investigation were processed with impressive speed.

"I think it was actually remarkable that we were able to accomplish what we did, given the scope and the size" of the case, she said, which includes allegations against 48 people prosecutors say are members or associates of the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

The issue is playing out as the state grapples more broadly with how to respect suspects' rights before trial. The state's top court has ruled that defendants are entitled to public defenders at all bail hearings, including those before commissioners in lower courts. The potentially costly proposition has officials reconsidering Maryland's entire system of pretrial release.

That debate mostly turns on what happens when police arrest suspects on the street, and at their earliest court appearances at Central Booking. But new complications arise when the state's attorney's office obtains an indictment through a grand jury.

To gauge the scope of the problems, The Sun obtained a list of all cases initiated by prosecutors through grand jury hearings in 2013, then used electronic court records to determine how much time passed between the dates on which suspects were served with arrest warrants and when they had their first hearings.

Some of the case records were not available, but court files show that at least 64 people waited more than two days before getting a hearing.

The delays have exasperated some judges on the front lines. In January, Baltimore Circuit Judge Sylvester B. Cox saw five suspects, including Brewer, who had all waited more than six weeks for a bail hearing.

On Jan. 16, Cox was presented with Michael Ross, who had languished in jail for 59 days on a drug charge. Of the defendants charged in 2013, he has the dubious distinction of waiting the longest for a hearing.

"Don't tell me he's been sitting around for six to eight weeks or so," Cox said with an audible sigh.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, said later that Ross was supposed to be taken before a District Court official soon after his arrest, but due to a glitch that didn't happen. Instead he ended up in Circuit Court.

"I've never been through a situation like this before," said Ross, 47, who faces a drug distribution charge that prosecutors previously dropped because of a technical issue. "I've been over there two months, I haven't seen anybody. It took me three weeks just to find out what I was even in for."

After a brief hearing, Cox released Ross on his own recognizance.

Three other suspects were taken into custody before Thanksgiving and waited in jail past Christmas before they got a hearing Jan. 14. Cox set bail for two of the men, and they soon posted. The third — who had no criminal record — he released with no financial conditions.

A prosecutor told Cox the delay came because her colleague handling the case was still in court when the charges were filed. That did not satisfy the judge, who warned that the state's attorney's office could have a civil rights issue on its hands.

"Considering there's about 204 of you in that office, is there any reason someone else couldn't have picked up the file?" Cox asked.

Two weeks later, it was Brewer's turn. He is accused of illegally having a gun and giving a firearm to someone else. His mother, Troie Travers, said he is not involved in gang activity and recently started a job-training program.

"He's never held a handgun. He doesn't know how to fight," Travers said. "He has not been using any drugs."

Brewer, who has three drug convictions on his record, was brought into court in early January and pleaded not guilty, but even then he did not have an opportunity to post bail. Embry said prosecutors did not schedule a bail hearing because they were never informed after the Baltimore sheriff's office served his warrant.

The sheriff's department declined to comment on the arrest. While there are systems designed to notify the state's attorney's office about an arrest, Embry acknowledged that "they are not foolproof."

Brewer's case was filed among a much larger set of indictments that hit people suspected of involvement with the Black Guerrilla Family — but Brewer does not face a gang conspiracy charge. Such multi-defendant cases have led to numerous delays.

While prosecutors attributed the delay Brewer faced to an oversight, the large number of people targeted with him threatened to swamp downtown courts, which do not typically handle the earliest stages of cases.

Natalie Finegar, the deputy public defender for Baltimore, said Bernstein's office must proceed with caution as it uses the tactic more often. "If you're going to use these tools, you need to do it carefully."

The state's attorney's office says starting the case off at the higher-level court means one prosecutor can see it through from beginning to end, which streamlines the process.

With the frequent use of grand jury indictments, state prosecutors are incorporating strategies from a federal system that for years has menaced criminals with tough penalties and the near-certainty of conviction.

Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, said the key to processing defendants quickly is advance preparation. Federal prosecutors make sure they notify pretrial agents, court officials and defense lawyers when they are planning a major takedown, he said.

As for defendants who might slip through the cracks, officials in other counties say they have simple ways of keeping on top of those in the system.

Prosecutors in other counties say they rarely initiate cases through grand jury indictments, so they have far fewer defendants to monitor. In Anne Arundel County, the court processes defendants on warrants obtained by prosecutors as they would any other suspect, according to Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler.

The court also has a simple system to remind police to tell officials when they've served such a warrant, Roessler said. The files are marked with a neon-green sticker with the court's fax number.

Cheshire said that in addition to priming the system for large busts, city prosecutors are working to revise their practices and eliminate errors that have led to lengthy delays.

In some cases, defendants posted bail soon after they got the chance, but even when suspects ultimately remain in jail to await trial, their families face days of uncertainty.

When Brittany Levy Evans' husband was swept up in November as part of the Black Guerrilla Family case and accused of murder conspiracy, she knew he would expect to only wait a day to see a judge.

But as 24 hours passed without a hearing, she began calling the Baltimore jail every day, looking for answers. As Anthony Evans, 21, spent days in jail, his wife spent hours on hold.

"I was in the dark," Brittany Evans said. "I didn't get no explanation, no nothing. … They would just give us a runaround."

Her husband ended up being held without bail.

Still, families grappling with allegations against their loved ones look to bail decisions as a way to clarify the circumstances they will face pending trial. And Anthony Evans' lawyer, Thomas J. Maronick Jr., said suspects have a right to a quick hearing, no matter how serious their charges.

"It's a matter of justice," Maronick said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Quinn Kelley and Brandi Bottalico contributed to this article.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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Delayed hearings

Baltimore prosecutors obtained indictments against 205 defendants in 2013. Electronic court records detailed the waits that 122 of those defendants had for a bail hearing. Of those:

•58 waited less than three days

•43 waited from three to seven days

•21 waited more than seven days

Source: Baltimore state's attorney's office and court records

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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