Barbara Jackson (right) is comforted by friend Adria Wilson

Barbara Jackson (right) is comforted by friend Adria Wilson during a visit to Quortez Jackson's grave. After her son's death, Jackson moved so she could be closer to his final resting place. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / September 29, 2002)

First of three parts

In one of the last pictures ever taken of him, Quortez Jackson looks sleepy. His eyes - his pretty, almost girlish, brown eyes - are half closed. His face is relaxed. The winsome ear-to-ear grin hangs slack at the corners.

On the right side of his forehead, just above his eye, there is a black hole, the charred signature of a point-blank, .38-caliber gunshot.

In the crime scene photo, the fingers on Jackson's left hand are little more than stumps, fused together from a birth defect. As the picture makes perfectly clear, he was all but defenseless when he was executed two summers ago on the doorstep of his mother's Cherry Hill townhouse.

"I need police and an ambulance!" one of the neighbors screamed moments later in a call to the city's 911 center. "There's a boy laying out here on the ground with his brains out. ... This is the woman's only son!"

In the background, a small child yelped: "He's shot!" The time was 5:55 p.m.

The daylight murder of the disabled 18-year-old on Aug. 5, 2000, galvanized a drug-racked neighborhood otherwise numb to the grim pornography of casual, curbside killings - the scattered bullet casings and blood-spattered sidewalks and crumpled teen-age corpses.

Quortez Jackson was beloved by his neighbors. Sweet-natured, quick to laugh, he had come of age among them and was forging a path in life that set an example for other kids in a part of the city where hope is hard to hold. One by one, four witnesses put aside their fears of retaliation and came forward to identify his killer in court.

But their testimony was not enough.

In a pattern played out in scores of trials over the past five years, defendant Kenneth "Exxon" Davis joined a long list of murder suspects acquitted after defense attorneys argued that police blunders raised doubts about their clients' guilt.

In closing remarks in the Davis trial, attorney Jerome Bivens noted that police had mangled evidence, filed incomplete reports, failed to question potential witnesses and had taken nearly an hour to get a homicide team to the scene of the murder, concluding: "We will never know what happened."

After the verdict, Judge William D. Quarles peered over the top of his wire-rim glasses and addressed the defendant in cadenced tones that conveyed both dismay and menace.

"I hope that you don't think this is something you have gotten away with," the judge told Davis. "Because there is a God, I firmly believe, and I believe there is a God whose business is justice. And when human beings fail at achieving justice, there is a God who has that franchise."

An 18-month investigation by The Sun shows that it was not the first such case to be left in God's hands. Rather, in a crisis that has quietly mounted for more than five years, so many homicide cases are now lost in court that the odds of getting away with murder in Baltimore are stacked decisively in favor of the killer.

Consider:

  • Of the 1,449 killings committed in the city between 1997 and the end of last year, 32 percent resulted in the arrest and conviction of a suspect on murder charges, a computer-assisted analysis shows.

    In the remaining 68 percent of those murders, no one was ever arrested, or the people who were arrested either went free or were sent to jail for short periods of time on lesser charges.

    In 37 percent of the 1,449 murders, no one was ever charged; in 7 percent of the cases, a suspect was charged but the charges were dropped; in 12 percent, the suspects were acquitted in court; and in the remaining 12 percent, a suspect was convicted of a lighter charge. On average, those defendants were sentenced to slightly more than two years in jail.

    Because they had spent several months in detention awaiting trial, this last group was typically eligible for parole or immediate release on the day they were convicted.