Uneven justice for Baltimore's rioters

Despite law enforcement promises to hold Baltimore rioters accountable, relatively few have been prosecuted.

Allen Bullock, who knew Freddie Gray, took out his frustration over his friend's death on a police car last spring. A photographer captured him standing on the hood, wielding an orange traffic cone like a baseball bat as he smashed in the car's windshield. He's looking straight into the camera, mid strike. And just like that, he became the teen-age face of the Baltimore riots.

This week, he took a plea deal in the criminal case filed against him. Under the agreement, he will be sentenced later this month to 12 years in prison, with all but six months of the time suspended, and he is required to complete hundreds of hours of community service. The sentence is a small fraction of the nine-year, unsuspended term prosecutors wanted — yet it's far worse than most punishments doled out for those caught up in the chaotic few days of crime last year.

Despite law enforcement promises to hold rioters accountable, relatively few have been prosecuted. Of the approximately 550 people arrested during the uprising in late April and early May, fewer than 100 were charged with any kind of significant crime, according to my analysis of police and online court records, and most of them either had their cases dropped or shelved, or they were given minor suspended sentences.

While the records don't tell the whole story, they do show how haphazard justice can seem in Baltimore. One woman was held in jail on $50,000 bail for almost seven months, only to have all charges against her (burglary, theft and malicious destruction) dropped by prosecutors. And bail amounts for those charged with inciting a riot, among the more serious charges made, ranged from zero to Mr. Bullock's $500,000, which was well above the bail set for the police officers charged in Gray's actual death.

Here's where the data came from: Last year after the uprising, I asked Baltimore police for a list of names of those arrested between April 25 and May 3 in relation to the unrest. They gave me a document with 544 names; some were misspelled, some were duplicated, and several dozen were juveniles. I looked up all of the names in online court records, removed those who didn't appear and set aside the 110 or so people whose only offense was violating a curfew restriction. That left 79 people charged with relatively significant crimes, ranging from drug possession to assault. I don't pretend that list is complete, but it is instructive.

Of those 79 people, 39 — half — had their cases dropped by prosecutors, several after having been held in jail for weeks on bails of $15,000 to $100,000. One person was found not guilty; five had their cases shelved, or "stetted"; six were given probation before judgment, and three are still awaiting an outcome and have trials set for this month.

Twenty-five people received convictions, though Larry Lomax's conviction for disorderly conduct appears to have been overturned on appeal. (Mr. Lomax was made famous by a viral video that showed police pepper spraying him.) Of those, 15 were sentenced to a combined, unsuspended term of nine years, seven months and 19 or so days. That looks substantial, but it's lopsided: One of those defendants took five years himself (for a first-degree burglary conviction), while three others received a year or more. Most sentences were for a few days. The remaining nine or so people received suspended sentences or probation.

Most of those charged with substantial crimes were black males, as is always the case in Baltimore. Many had prior convictions — a lot of drug possession or distribution charges — and some of those charged were given a chance only to throw it away. One woman whose riot charge was shelved, for example, was arrested on assault and disorderly conduct charges later in the year.

And most people were held on some kind of bail, despite a recommendation last year that the state end its cash bail system, which often serves to punish the poor rather than to protect the public — as may well be the case with one man whose trial is set for March 22 and who has been held on $2,500 bail since April 29, according to court records. There often seemed no pattern to how the bails were set.

One 22-year-old who was charged with inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, failure to obey and resisting arrest was committed to jail on April 29, given a $100,000 bail on April 30. A day later he was released on his own recognizance after another bail review hearing.

A man charged with 4th degree burglary and theft offenses (both later dropped) was given an initial $25,000 bail and spent a week in jail, while another man charged with inciting a riot and having a dangerous weapon with the intent to injure, among other offenses, had his bail set at $10,000 (prosecutors dropped his case too).

Another man was held for a month in jail on a 4th degree burglary charge and $750,000 bail, records show, before his charges were dropped. I hope that figure is a typo, because I can't imagine what kind of looting would require a bail amount that high. Then there was the 35-year-old man who was ultimately convicted of second-degree assault (and given an 18-month sentence, with all but two days suspended); he was released without bail after his arrest.

If we're looking for an answer to the question of whether Baltimore dealt harshly or leniently with those arrested during the riots, these data don't provide it. Instead they paint a picture of a system in which what constitutes justice is arbitrary, which is part of what led to the riots in the first place. At a time when the city is under investigation by the Department of Justice and looking at turning over its leadership in the upcoming election, it certainly suggests voters should take a close look at candidates advocating reform.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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