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Crime and punishment, Baltimore style


LAST August I was held up at an ATM in a fairly desolate stretch of Charles Street. It was around 7 in the evening and still light, but the streets were quite empty, and in retrospect it was a dumb time and place to be making a bank-card transaction.

I was quick about it, opting for the $50 quick cash that returns your card with the money, but the moment I turned around, there was this guy ordering me to hand over my money. He held a wide-barreled pistol aimed at my face.

Considering that you can get killed for a pair of tennis shoes these days, I did what anybody in his right mind would do: I gave him the money. A couple of people had come strolling up the sidewalk while this was going on. They went past us, and the man fled with my money, running by the surveillance camera in the ATM.

If using that particular ATM at that particular time was my first mistake, my second was failing to get the names of the witnesses, both of whom stopped and offered to talk to the police.

"Nah," I said, feeling like the nameless victim of an anonymous crime in the Violent American Night, overwhelmed with what seemed the futility of apprehending the criminal, even then fleeing into the Baltimore darkness.

Instead, I went to another ATM, this one in a clean, well-lighted place.

When I got home, I reported the robbery just to make the police aware that a crime had been committed, and I filed a complaint with the two officers who came to my house.

The people who rob ATM patrons are not, as you would expect, the smartest in the world. It was only a matter of time before this one was caught robbing somebody else at the same ATM, and police had a manila folder full of surveillance photos of him robbing me and several others. I was subpoenaed to appear at his preliminary hearing at the courthouse on North Avenue one fine October morning.

I worried that I might not recognize the guy who robbed me. I was afraid I might finger an innocent man, send him away for 20 years for a crime he had not committed. After all, I have a hard enough time visualizing the faces of people I see every day, and sometimes I don't even recognize people I work with when I see them out of context, in the grocery or at a movie.

But as it turned out, I instantly recognized him. As it turned out, he waived his preliminary hearing, since the weight of evidence was so enormous.

I thought that was going to be the end of it. His lawyer would make a plea bargain, and he'd be locked away.

In February I received a subpoena to appear in court. The guy wanted a jury trial! This infuriated me. Imagine! He was hoping to be found innocent! After all, what did he have to lose? In America, people are innocent until declared guilty by a jury of their peers. I wouldn't have it any other way.

But damn it, this man was guilty!

The trial was postponed because the city state's attorney's office was busy with the much-publicized Dontay Carter trial. I received another summons to appear this month. Just before the trial, however, the defense entered a guilty plea. The man got six years in prison and several more on probation.

The state's attorney's office was pleased. Too often, I was told, criminals like this get away with their crimes. If I have any influence with legislators, I was beseeched, I should urge them to do something. But what? Here was a simple, unremarkable crime that was easy to solve. It took nine months to put the criminal away -- for a few years. What of the countless other crimes far more heinous, far more complex? What's happened to our "criminal justice system"?

Charles Rammelkamp writes from Baltimore.

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