Crime and punishment, Baltimore style

If one were to grade the Baltimore state's attorney's office on conviction rates and public relations skills, it would get maybe an F. But if one were to grade State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and her sidekick spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns on the fine art of political stonewalling - that is, the outright refusal to answer inconvenient questions - the grade would have to be an A+.

Most of us remember the fuss kicked up by statements Ms. Burns made about the Zach Sowers case for an online magazine article dealing with legal issues. Mr. Sowers was beaten into a coma just a few feet from his front door in a gentrified Baltimore neighborhood on the first day of June 2007, by one of four thugs who waylaid him in search of cash and the thrills certain lowlifes get from inflicting harm on helpless victims. He lay in a coma for nine months before dying at age 28. During that time, his attackers reached plea agreements with Ms. Jessamy's office sending three of them to prison for eight years; the one who curb-stomped Mr. Sowers drew a 40-year sentence. Zach Sowers' wife, Anna, was angered by the decision to plea bargain rather than try the case, and she made her displeasure public, which led to the interview in which Ms. Burns played down the extent of the damage done to Mr. Sowers when he was stomped by burly 16-year-old Trayvon Ramos, who, according to a police report, was using the fender of a parked car to brace himself while repeatedly slamming his foot against the back of Mr. Sowers' head.

Ms. Burns was quoted as saying, "The injuries were not consistent with this horrible pummeling - it appeared when he fell down, he had collapsed after being hit." Also, "He looked like a sleeping baby when he arrived at the hospital." These statements and another, "There was no evidence of the vicious beating, no evidence of stomping," prompted outrage not only from Anna Sowers, her family and friends, but also from the medical personnel who treated Mr. Sowers at the Johns Hopkins Neurocritical Care Center.

As Melissa Harris reported in this newspaper, Ms. Burns apologized by phone and by e-mail to Anna Sowers, "but she maintained that her comments were 'vastly misrepresented' by the freelance journalist who wrote the piece." That writer, Melody Simmons, told me she stands by the story she wrote and the quotes she attributed to Ms. Burns. Mrs. Sowers demands a public apology and retraction "because Burns' statements have undermined her efforts to lobby for changes in state law that would help crime victims." There has been no public apology and no retraction.

There was a drumbeat of demands that Ms. Burns be fired and even talk of mounting a serious challenge to Ms. Jessamy's hold on the state's attorney's office, but the reality is that she is politically unassailable. So she and her people maintain their silence, Mrs. Sowers continues to try to channel her grief and anger into something useful, and I wanted to bring this up one more time - especially because of the release Friday of the full report commissioned by the Abell Foundation on significant sentencing disparities between Baltimore and surrounding jurisdictions. The report, which analyzed jury trials over a one-year period starting in July 2005, shows that people charged with serious crimes that went to trial in the outlying jurisdictions were 30 times more likely to be convicted than similar defendants in the city.

When the draft summary was made public, Ms. Jessamy asked that the report be shelved. Jury nullification is a sensitive topic, because it's all about race. Many black Baltimoreans have a pronouncedly lower regard for police officers and their testimony in court than do predominantly white suburbanites.

Apparently, the state's attorney wants to pretend this isn't true. Perhaps that's the reason Ms. Burns, instead of acknowledging the real reasons for the difficulty of convicting the accused in the Sowers case, instead attacked the credibility of his wife.

This city lives not only with the notorious "Stop Snitching" ethos of the criminal underclass but also suspicions about the justice system. The perception of prejudice against blacks was heightened by the mass arrests ordered during the O'Malley years to boost crime statistics. Tens of thousands of black Baltimoreans were swept up, only to be released with no charges because, in most cases, they had committed no crimes. How do you suppose they regard the system used against them in that way?

I talked with Anna Sowers on my show a few weeks ago. We've posted audio of our discussion on my page at Check it out.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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