The brazen escape Monday of Dontay Carter, a 19-year-old convicted killer who fooled two prison guards and leaped from a bathroom window of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown prompted the city's biggest manhunt since 1964. He was re-captured late yesterday.
Those pursued nearly three decades ago were the Veney brothers, who had killed a police sergeant and wounded a lieutenant during and after a Christmas eve holdup of a liquor store. Police canvassed neighborhoods, searching houses and questioning anyone who bore the slightest resemblance to the suspects. That meant black males of a certain age, regardless of what their station in life was. Civil right organizations protested; the brothers were eventually caught and forgotten. Life went on, the system kept grinding as before.
The frantic efforts to find Dontay Carter produced some of the same ignorant excesses. The sighting of a black professional walking to work from the light-rail stop in Lutherville yesterday was enough to draw a police helicopter and screeching patrol cars. Others were stopped on streets or traffic lights. Not because they resembled the escapee but because they were black.
Ever since Dontay Carter began grabbing headlines, he has mocked the system. He was convicted in November of first-degree murder and kidnapping in the bludgeon death last February of Vitalis V. Pilius; last month he pleaded guilty to kidnapping a Baltimore jeweler. On Monday, he was being tried on kidnapping charges in anther case.
Carter knew the weak spots of the criminal justice system and had the smarts and brazenness to try to exploit them. He left a trail of blood and tears in his wake. But he also caused enough outrage to force long-needed reforms -- including personnel changes -- first at the Maryland State Police and the Motor Vehicle Administration.
Now the state prison system's procedures for guarding inmates while they are in courthouses have been called into question. The two guards in this instance have been suspended. But it will take fundamental changes in the way corrections officials guard inmates to quiet the concerns of a worried and angry public.
Any system that grows lax and functions badly meets a Dontay Carter sooner or later. Some officials simply shrug and continue to grind on. Others learn from such mistakes and institute overdue reforms. A Dontay Carter may be a threat. But he is also a warning -- and mandate for change.