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Breakdown in courts called threat to public; City lawmakers issue ultimatum to Jessamy; 'Judicial system is failing'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

City and state legislators who represent Baltimore said yesterday that the breakdown in the city's courts -- prompting the dismissal of serious criminal charges -- is a threat to public safety and demanded an immediate solution.

"There is legitimate concern about our city, where the judicial system is failing and releasing potential criminals," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat. "We are going to demand that something be done. We owe that to the citizens of Baltimore."

Rawlings said he planned to meet privately today with Maryland's chief judge, Robert M. Bell, to discuss the crisis in the city's courthouse.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said her office is doing its job.

"To say that we are not exercising due diligence, I think, is an insult to all of those people in the system who work very, very, very, very, very hard every day to make sure that things do get done," she said.

In separate sessions yesterday, city and state political leaders called for swift action to improve the chaotic court system. Four City Council members threatened to withhold funding from Jessamy's office if she did not take over from police the responsibility for charging suspects.

That move could keep "junk cases" from clogging the court system because prosecutors would review the arrests and decide which charges they could prove in court.

The council members said they were infuriated by dismissal of a case against two men, charged with robbery and carjacking, because of repeated delays and procedural mistakes. An article detailing the case was published yesterday in The Sun.

"The time for excuses is over," said Democratic Councilman Martin O'Malley, who lives about a mile from where the robbery and carjacking took place in Northeast Baltimore three years ago.

"We don't elect the state's attorney to be the minister of excuses. She's elected to determine what cases are important and which cases should be prosecuted," he said.

O'Malley, mentioned as a possible candidate for state's attorney, gave Jessamy a deadline of April 1 to assume the charging responsibility from police. If she misses the deadline, he said, he would halt funding of her office and order her to appear before the City Council to explain why she should continue to receive public money.

Jessamy reiterated yesterday that she wants to begin charging suspects, a move that could help free prosecutors for the more serious cases. But she said the shift requires a change in state procedural rules by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

She said the Maryland Bar Association is studying the proposal, and she is waiting for its report. She also questioned whether the City Council could interrupt her agency's funding after the budget had been approved.

"I'm a state agency, and under the Constitution, I don't think they can do that," Jessamy said.

Several hours after the council members issued their ultimatum, six members of the city's delegation in the state Senate held a hearing in Annapolis to examine the court system. They called Jessamy, police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell and State Public Defender Stephen E. Harris to appear.

The senators considered several possible remedies -- some old, some new. They pondered the creation of a night court and placing a judge in Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center -- a change Bell and District Court supervisors have steadfastly resisted.

The senators also discussed shifting the authority to charge criminals from the police to Jessamy's office. Frazier said he supported the proposal. When it was done in Philadelphia, prosecutors decided not to formally charge suspects in 30 percent of the cases.

The events took place yesterday during a wave of highly publicized procedural missteps in the Baltimore Circuit Court that have led to dismissal of serious charges and the release of prisoners who plead guilty to lesser crimes in exchange for their immediate release.

Under state and federal law, defendants are entitled to a speedy trial. In Maryland, they must be tried within 180 days of their arraignments or the charges can be dropped. But facing an out-of-control court docket in Baltimore, trials repeatedly have been postponed far beyond the speedy trial deadline, court files show.

In the most recent case, two men charged with carjacking and armed robbery were freed after a judge ruled that prosecutors had taken too long to bring Christopher Wills and Kevin Cox to trial and a critical court hearing was held without them.

During the hearing in Annapolis yesterday, state Sen. George W. Della Jr. told Jessamy she should hold her staff accountable for what happened in that case.

"Instead of looking for excuses, I want results out of these people," Della said. "I'd be reading them the riot act. If they worked for me, I would have called every one of those damn people in the office, and I would say, 'Look at this damn article in the Sunpapers. I'm not going to tolerate this kind of crap anymore because the public is outraged, and so am I.'

"You cannot solve problems by throwing money at them. That's not the answer," Della said.

Jessamy told him and other members of the delegation that she needs at least 10 additional prosecutors and more support staff to handle a caseload that has grown dramatically during the past decade.

"Money may not be the answer, but it's part of the answer," she said. "This system has been neglected and overburdened without anything to help it along for all these long years. And we're getting to the point now where we are paying the piper."

Mitchell, the judge, told senators he is trying to eliminate the "postponement culture" at the courthouse. He also has used a report -- at which court officials previously barely glanced -- to prioritize aging cases. Nearly all those identified in the report with "double-digit" postponements have been resolved, he said.

"Our effort was to make these cases get into court and tried," he said.

As a sign of concern for their own safety, one of the senators half-joked that maybe the law-enforcement officers in the room could get Wills and Cox off the street for something.

"Can you go find somebody to arrest these guys? It'll make my wife feel better," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "Go get them for something, spitting on the sidewalk."

On a serious note, Jessamy told the senators the case against Wills and Cox is being evaluated for additional charges.

After the hearing, she said federal prosecutors are examining whether the pair could be charged with federal weapons violations.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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