Marc Unger had had enough. The comedian and Charles Village resident was standing at the foot of a memorial for Stephen Pitcairn, the Hopkins student slain near Unger's home Sunday, listening as politicians took turns making remarks when Unger boiled over with frustration.
"We are in fear!" Unger yelled, interrupting Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.
Unger described how he was asked by police to try to identify the body, and how he hasn't been able to get the image out of his head. He chastised a police spokesman for calling the stabbing an "isolated incident," pointing out that another man was killed a block away earlier this year. (The spokesman has since clarified that he meant that Pitcairn wasn't targeted). He said what happened to Pitcairn could've happened to anyone living or passing through the neighborhood.
Politicians promoted the event as a show of solidarity, a press conference where each to go before the cameras and call for an end to violence. But dozens of residents showed up, standing on either side of the podium, with the intention of expressing their concerns, and some grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of substantive talk. After all, there have been two other such events nearby this year alone, along Greenmount Avenue (after a 72-year-old Afro newspaper employee was shot at a carryout) and in Guilford (after a resident was robbed and locked in his own trunk).
Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III matched their outrage, raising his voice above the street noise to condemn the failures of the system as veins popped out of his neck.
"We're sorry we failed," he began. "We're sorry we failed to protect you."
"I'm going to accept my responsibility and challenge myself about what we could've done better. But I want to hear from a lot of other people," he said, in an apparent allusion to the state's attorney's office or city judges. "... These people should not have been on the streets. We've got to get everybody behind this."
Bealefeld spoke about "bad guys with guns," saying he doesn't know what's debatable about keep gun offenders in prison. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who could barely be heard from where I was standing, and Del. Curt Anderson both spoke about supporting gun legislation in the next legislative session.
Of course, Pitcairn's killers weren't "bad guys with the guns" in the sense the public officials were talking about (and wasn't Pitcarin shot). True, John Alexander Wagner, one of those charged in the killing, has handgun and armed robbery convictions from 1991 and 1993 for which he received considerable prison sentences at the time. But in recent years, Wagner's crimes were for assaulting his then-girlfriend and driving a stolen car. He was charged by city police with armed robbery in April, though police never recovered a weapon despite catching Wagner as he ran from the scene.
That charge was later dropped because prosecutors say the victim refused to cooperate, and there is debate over whether prosecutors could have done more to keep the case alive. Regardless, gun legislation would have done little to change what transpired.
As the Sun reported Wednesday, Wagner received suspended prison sentences for his most recent crimes and was put on two concurrent probations in the city and later Baltimore County, never forced to serve any of his sentence despite repeatedly running afoul of his probation. He failed to check in with his agents, failed to take required anger management classes at the House of Ruth, picked up new criminal charges on three different occasions, and failed to attempt to pay restitution to one of his victims. Judge John Addison Howard found him guilty of violating his probation, but his probation simply continued unchanged.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy has borne much of the brunt of criticism, and she stood far away from the officials gathered behind the podium, telling reporters she did not want to politicize Pitcairn's death. Prodded by a television reporter about whether her office had a role to play in fixing the problems that kept Wagner on the street, she noted that her office in recent years has inserted prosecutors into the violation of probation process, a civil matter traditionally handled by probation agents. Now, prosecutors attend the hearings to try to add weight to the probation agents' concerns. Indeed, prosecutors say they asked city Judge Howard to impose a three year sentence at one of Wagner's recent hearings, to no avail.
"I don't have all of the answers," Jessamy said, "but I never stop working and neither do my employees."
Earlier city councilwoman Belinda Conaway said debating crime and punishment wasn't the issue, challenging residents to reach out and help those less fortunate than themselves. "There's so many young people, crying out for help," she said.
Nearby, an 18-year resident stood by with a sign: "When criminals slip through the cracks, the city crumbles."