Court system overwhelmed, Baltimore prosecutor says; Slain man's parents get apology after charges are dropped

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's top prosecutor apologized yesterday to the parents of a murder victim who saw their son's suspected killers go free because of chronic trial delays in a criminal justice system that is "totally overwhelmed."

"We're very sorry that this happened, and we will do everything we can to make sure they will get their day in court," city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said.

Jessamy is appealing the decision by Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown on Tuesday that dismissed charges against the four men accused of killing Shawn L. Suggs, 21.

She also is challenging a decision by a state appellate court that laid the groundwork for the dismissal.

If prosecutors win the appeal before the state's highest court by arguing that the postponements were justified, the suspects could be re-charged. One of them remains in jail in a different case.

The dismissal prompted renewed calls yesterday for a state takeover of Baltimore's beleaguered court system, as judges and prosecutors vowed to change the way cases are handled.

"No system should be in a posture such as this, and we have got to do whatever we can to correct whatever the problems are," Maryland's Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said. "It's our responsibility."

Suggs' father, however, was inconsolable.

"It's most disgusting," said Sedric Suggs, an academic counselor for the disabled. "The state has chosen to side with the assailants."

Shawn, an only child and the father of a 3 1/2-year-old boy, was slain on Oct. 17, 1995.

"This is unbelievable," the elder Suggs said. "Something is wrong someplace in the system. The system failed me. It failed my wife. It failed my son."

Few disputed his assessment yesterday.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said. "It's frustrating to everyone in the department to see cases dismissed and family members grieve.

"I think we passed the breaking point long ago."

The dismissal came after a Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision in December that erased the sex crime conviction in a Baltimore case because it had been postponed nine times when no judges were available to preside at the trial.

By law, defendants are to be tried within six months after their first court appearance or the charges could be dropped. The sex case was postponed seven times after the speedy trial deadline had passed.

What concerns court officials -- and what led to the dismissal of the murder charges -- is that the December ruling said that a judge's decision to postpone a case beyond the speedy trial deadline for "good cause" is not good enough.

Judge Joseph P. McCurdy, the former administrative judge who oversaw postponements for the past several years, said yesterday that he found the postponements in the Suggs case to be justified.

"I would have made them today the same as I made them then," McCurdy said. "I made the good cause findings based upon the law as I understood it."

Judges are now pledging to grant postponements only in rare cases. They are examining several proposals to improve the flow of cases.

The system "needs a whip," said Brown, the judge who dismissed the Suggs case. "I think there comes a time when we look at a case and say: 'Enough is enough. We have to try this case, come hell or high water.' "

Budget is lacking

Jessamy said she needs a budget increase of $8 million -- to $21.2 million -- to have enough prosecutors and support staff for the court system, where the number of cases has swelled in recent years. Felony drug cases alone have tripled in the past eight years.

A spokesman for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the city can't afford as $8 million increase. The state should fund the city courts, Clinton R. Coleman said: "It really is a state function, and the mayor's view is where you are arrested should have no bearing on how speedy a trial you get."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's spokesman said the governor plans to honor his campaign promise to consider funding the city's courts.

"He really wants to do it," Ray Feldmann said. "The only question is, how to do it and how to do it right?"

But state Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House public safety subcommittee, said more money is not the answer.

"The issue is management," he said. "The public safety is at risk because of the poor management by the judicial system. If the state's attorney and the administrative judge can't resolve this immediately, then the legislature will. The legislature will hold hearings and conduct management audits."

At first, the case against the men arrested in Shawn Suggs' slaying looked promising. Witnesses to the 1995 killing identified Dontae Spivey, 21; William Harrison, 21; Stacey Wilson, 29; and Jay Anderson, 30, as being directly involved. None of the suspects waived his right to a speedy trial, their attorneys said.

But the case was hobbled by delays.

List of delays

The first postponement came in April 1996, when prosecutors needed to consolidate Spivey's case with the three others and a defense attorney asked for more time to prepare. That June, the case was postponed again because Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Johnson was handling another trial and a defense attorney had a conflict because he was representing two defendants in the case.

On Oct. 2, 1996, prosecutors asked Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes to order the arrest of one of the witnesses who had failed to appear in court.

On Oct. 31, Byrnes was overseeing another trial, and two defense attorneys said they, too, were tied up with other cases. In December, the prosecutor was in another trial, one defendant had a new lawyer and Byrnes had another trial.

In March 1997, Circuit Judge Mabel E. Houze Hubbard was in another trial. So was one of the defense attorneys. In May, the case was postponed with no explanation in the court file.

In July, the case was postponed because Hubbard said she had another case to try, according to Jessamy. Adding to the delay: A defense attorney was on vacation.

In November 1997, Circuit Judge Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman said she couldn't hear the case because she was overseeing a different trial.

In February 1998, the prosecutor was on medical leave, and Friedman was handling another trial. In June, Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy Jr. said he was presiding over a different case, and a defense attorney was unavailable. In August, Gordy was still tied up with a trial, and this time, the prosecutor was unavailable.

On Nov. 17, 1998, the prosecutor was on medical leave, and a defense attorney was stuck in a different courtroom.

Five days later, prosecutors said they needed to locate the transcript of the testimony from one of their main witnesses -- a man who was slain over the summer in what police described as a home invasion robbery.

Adding to the delay, the court reporter called in sick.

Sedric Suggs said last night that he's no longer expecting justice from the court system.

"Vengeance is in the hands of the Lord," he said. "I was seeking closure. But there will be punishment. What goes around comes around. I'm a firm believer in that.

"Now it's in the hands of the Lord almighty."

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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