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Beginnings and endings, serials and scandals and cultural chasms drove the news in Baltimore in 2015

The death of Freddie Gray and the unrest that followed dominated the news in 2015, but Baltimoreans wrote a quiet counternarrative as neighbors rallied to clean up after the riots, ministers led prayers in the streets and civic leaders called for change.

Reid Wiseman, an astronaut who had circled the earth on the International Space Station, returned to his Charm City hometown. Pope Francis bypassed Baltimore, but thousands of locals traveled to see him. And a city that seemed inhibited by its past and its image felt pangs along with its growth.

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In a year of stratospheric ups and plunging downs, Baltimore did what it has always done best: working hard to make the most of what it has. Here's a look at stories that made headlines.

Podcast appeal

Pop culture collided with the legal system when Adnan Syed, the Baltimore County man whose conviction in a long-ago murder case became the subject of a wildly popular mystery-style podcast, won the right to present new evidence challenging his conviction.

Syed was 19 when his former girlfriend and classmate at Woodlawn High School vanished on Jan. 13, 1999.The body of Hae Min Lee eventually was found in Leakin Park.

A jury found Syed guilty of first-degree murder largely on the testimony of a single witness and data gathered from a cell tower.

Enter radio journalist (and former Sun reporter) Sarah Koenig, whose 12-episode podcast revisited evidence in the case. "Serial," an offshoot of the public radio program "This American Life," surpassed 76 million streams and downloads, the most ever for a podcast, this year, and Syed's lawyers filed a succession of motions seeking the right to appeal.

On Nov. 6, Baltimore circuit judge Martin Welch granted Syed, now 35, a legal rarity: a post-conviction hearing.

It's not a retrial, but the hearing — still unscheduled — will allow attorneys a chance to present issues not argued at the trial. "Serial" was renewed for two more seasons.

Crime and punishment

A tragedy that roiled Baltimore and the Episcopal church reached a denouement in October, when former Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, the No. 2 official in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, was sentenced to seven years in prison for a drunk-driving crash that killed a local cyclist.

Cook, 58, who was texting while driving down Roland Avenue two days after Christmas 2014, pleaded guilty to automobile manslaughter in the death of Thomas Palermo, a married father of two.

Public outrage grew when it emerged that the search committee that nominated Cook in 2014 knew that she had pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in Caroline County in 2010. The committee did not share that information with the electors who voted her into office.

In February, the head of the Maryland diocese, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, wrote a letter to diocese members apologizing for his failure to recognize the gravity of Cook's addiction. He later admitted he had seen her in what he believed was an intoxicated state two days before her consecration ceremony in September 2014.

Cook resigned her position in May, pleaded guilty to four charges in September and was sentenced Oct. 27.

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In another high-profile case, a Delaware judge sentenced fitness author and onetime Ravens cheerleader Molly Shattuck, 48, to 48 weeks in a community corrections center for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in Bethany Beach in 2014.

Housing hotseats

City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano was hailed in June after bulldozers razed the last of 98 derelict homes on Tivoly Avenue as part of the city's "Vacants to Value" program. But he was the target of criticism in the fall when seven women filed lawsuits alleging that maintenance workers in a public housing complex in West Baltimore demanded sex in exchange for repairs.

Criticism grew in October, when elderly and disabled residents at a Reservoir Hill complex were found to have spent four days with no water and only sporadic heat. A Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that the housing authority had a backlog of more than 4,000 work orders more than a month old, a quarter of them for repairs essential to safety or sanitation. Graziano announced a plan to hire 50 new "maintenance technicians."

City and federal authorities opened investigations, and 13 more women joined the multimillion-dollar civil suit. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stood by Graziano, praising his plan to privatize about 40 percent of the city's public housing, an idea she said could net nearly $400 million.

The state housing boss also drew fire. After Kenneth C. Holt suggested that some mothers might poison their children to take advantage of laws holding landlords accountable for lead toxicity, 30 Democratic members of the House of Delegates called for his ouster, terming his comments "incredibly insensitive to the plight of mothers of children with lead poisoning." Republican Gov. Larry Hogan stood by Holt after Holt expressed "deep regrets" over the remarks.

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Sen. Barbara A. Mikuski, long Maryland's most popular politician, shocked even her closest supporters in March when she announced she would retire at the end of her current term next year. The daughter of Polish grocers in Highlandtown and a social worker, Mikulski, 79, rose from obscurity to become the longest-serving woman ever in Congress.

Democrats from President Barack Obama on down hailed Mikulski as a pioneer in women's rights, a champion of the disadvantaged and a lawmaker whose 4'11" frame and folksy manner belie her toughness. Mikulski vowed to stay active and involved, and did so, announcing her support, for instance, for the President's proposed nuclear deal with Iran, providing the last vote needed to ensure its survival in Congress.

Her departure set up a Democratic primary showdown between Reps. Chris Van Hollen, 56, of Montgomery County, and Donna F. Edwards, 57, of Prince George's County.

Van Hollen led Edwards by 14 points in a Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll in November, but the same survey showed that Rep. Elijah E. Cummings would lead both if he decided to join the race.

Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County, the state House Republican whip, led several candidates for the GOP nomination with 15 percent of likely voters.

Asked what sort of person should succeed her, Mikulski named one requirement: "I think it's important for Maryland to make a choice that they are crazy about."

Maryland politicians also surfaced on the national scene, though with varied degrees of success. Former Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid for the Democratic nomination for president struggled to catch fire, with polls showing him trailing significantly against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Meanwhile, Republican and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson saw fluctuating poll numbers in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination. As the year came to a close, Carson remained among the top prospects in a crowded field, but behind front runner Donald Trump in national polling.

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Drug policy

Two years after state lawmakers made medical marijuana legal, the General Assembly passed, and Hogan signed, a bill allowing Maryland to issue up to 15 licenses to grow and process the drug and 94 more to run dispensaries.

But after nearly 900 license applications flooded in — a glut that netted about $1 million in fees — overwhelmed officials announced a delay in their plan to start granting preliminary approvals in mid-January of next year.

A push to find ways to curb heroin use moved forward more quickly.

Cheap, highly potent heroin — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — continued to wreak havoc in Maryland. Heroin overdose deaths increased by 95 percent from 2011 to 2013, then leaped another 25 percent last year, to 578. More than 300 were in Baltimore, where there are believed to be more than 18,000 users.

A task force appointed by Rawlings-Blake unveiled a $20 million proposal to address the crisis. It included provisions to supply more naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses; to add treatment centers; to track heroin hot spots and to create a public outreach campaign.

Gov. Larry Hogan declared heroin a public health issue and created two panels to attack it. Attorney General Brian Frosh committed resources to an interstate effort to combat trafficking, and the federal government sent $2.5 million to the Baltimore-Washington area as part of its Heroin Response Strategy.

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford warned there would probably never be enough money to fix the state's heroin problem and recommended spending $2 million on treatment and prevention.

Flag furor

After a man who had posed with a Confederate battle flag shot nine people to death in a church in Charleston, S.C., Marylanders joined a nationwide debate over how best to deal with emblems of the nation's slaveholding past.

The National Parks Service pulled "stand-alone depictions" of the flag from gift shops at Antietam National Battlefield and elsewhere. Rawlings-Blake named a commission to explore what, if anything, should be done with the Confederate-themed monuments that still dot the city. Baltimore County moved to change the name of Robert E. Lee Park, and Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the MVA to stop issuing specialty license plates bearing the flag's image.

And in College Park, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh this month threw his support behind a push to rename Byrd Stadium, the football venue named for a segregationist university president, to Maryland Stadium. The Board of Regents approved the change Dec. 11.

The debates bore faint echoes of a war that split the state long ago. The Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group, continued to fly the flag in ceremonies. Vendors sold the banner at a fair in Dundalk as protesters burned it nearby. Historians compared the idea of banning historic symbols to the Taliban razing ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

Baltimore County Councilman Todd Crandell, a Republican, summed up the conflicting passions.

"[The] flag is part of our history," he said. "It means different things to different people."

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