Bolts are missing on assembly line of urban justice


The first guy is charged with drug possession. He's wearing a pin-stripe suit that seems borrowed from an early George Raft movie, with a silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket and an expression of utter innocence that says, "Hey. Does this look like the customized ensemble of a street hood?"

"Case postponed," Judge Joseph Ciotola declares yesterday morning, noting that no witnesses have appeared.

"Son of a bitch," mutters a nearby undercover cop.

It's going to be that kind of a morning. The snow is spilling across the city, people are running late or not at all, and the normal, hectic pace of Western District Court is about to be sped up even more.

The morning's second case is tossed when the defendant fails to appear. He's got other business. While on bail on his first drug possession charge, he seems to have gotten himself arrested on another drug possession charge. He's at City Jail. Case postponed.

Third case: Guy in a blue sweat shirt who seems dressed more for track warm-ups than a morning in court. The charge is assault. But the guy's victim's had a change of heart and doesn't want to press charges. These things happen. People get nervous, cool off, forget facts, move some place safer.

"You're lucky," Judge Ciotola says, dismissing the case. "You could have gotten time for this."

The defendant has eyes that never move above half-mast. He seems sublimely unimpressed, a man who's been here before and knows the routine.

The routine is this: In Baltimore's nine district courts, street crime comes to pay its dues. You walk into any of them on a weekday morning, and you see the criminal justice system trying to come to grips with a society in convulsion, dozens of cases a morning, to be replaced by dozens more each afternoon.

At Western district, you see so many cases so quickly that they seem to overlap.

A defendant with black hair and a turquoise sweater pulled over a voluptuous figure takes the stand. A state's attorney, momentarily distracted, looks up and asks the woman: "You're the defendant?"


"You're Tyrone -------?"

"Yes," says the defendant. "The officer knows me personally."

Across the front row of benches, a line of police officers stifle a collective guffaw. It's laughter to let off a little steam, which builds up not only from street crime but from all the devices used to avoid paying the price for it: defendants who disappear, witnesses who cave in, postponements and legal technicalities and guys named Tyrone who show up with major parts of their anatomy rearranged.

The first five cases of the day are settled in five minutes. The first 13, in 20 minutes. A man is charged with malicious destruction of a flower pot. Another is charged with breaking and entering. In another 20 minutes, 10 more cases are decided.

"It looks like, in the next hour, we'll have all these police officers back on the street to protect the citizenry," says Judge Ciotola.

"Could we wait until the streets are plowed?" a plainclothes cop says, not quite under his breath.

Now comes a woman in a black woolen cap, the kind football teams use in cold weather warm-ups. Again, confusion over witnesses. Again, assault. The state decides it will not prosecute.

"You're also fortunate," says the veteran Ciotola, in a voice grown slightly weary. "The state gave you a new year's gift."

All of this is happening in rapid-fire moments. In five more minutes, four more cases are gone. Everybody's like the guy with the half-mast eyes: They've been here before, they know their roles, it's no big deal.

Next case: A woman in red jeans, grinning idiotically and rolling her shoulders like the tide coming in. She's accused of beating the hell out of her husband, who's chosen not to come to court. No witness, no case. The woman prances off with the same grin on her face, and she's barely out of the courtroom when the next case is called.

It's a young man who's a deaf-mute. He's charged with possession of a shotgun. But even the cops are sympathetic, noting that kids in the neighborhood pick on him because he can't talk. What counts more, the legality of carrying a shotgun, or the humanity of a poor soul picked on for his limitations?

That question will have to wait for another day: Case postponed until the young man gets an attorney.

In exactly one hour, 33 cases will be called. It's assembly line justice, Henry Ford's dream translated to the courtroom. It's a system stumbling along, trying to get a grip on street crime and succeeding only sporadically.

Figure, minimally, 50 cases a day in each of the nine district courts. That's 450 cases a day. Multiply that by five days a week. That's 2,250 cases. Each week. Fifty-two weeks each year.

The defendants come in, the system tries to judge them fairly. The defendants duck and weave, the attorneys go at each other. Witnesses go away, evidence disappears, people forget things they thought they'd always remember.

Where were we? Oh, yeah, 2,250 cases a week, times 52 weeks a year. Does anybody out there have a calculator? In the district courts, they try to calculate a system of justice, at about 117,000 cases a year.

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