Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy took her uphill battle for control over the charging of defendants in serious criminal cases to the General Assembly yesterday and encountered strong opposition from the Baltimore Police Department and some skepticism from a Senate committee.
Jessamy asked the Judicial Proceedings Committee to approve legislation requiring prosecutors to review all charging documents drawn by city police in felony cases before a District Court commissioner or judge could approve the charges. Under the bill, prosecutors would have 24 hours to make a recommendation to the commissioner or judge, but the recommendation would not be binding.
Police are not required now to consult prosecutors in advance. Jessamy and her assistants have complained that police sometimes bring charges on evidence that is so weak that prosecutors have to drop the cases.
In November, they dropped charges against a man accused of killing a Polytechnic Institute graduate who was attending Pennsylvania State University on a full scholarship, complaining that police had not done a thorough investigation.
"Right now, a police officer may or may not come to a prosecutor before going to get an arrest warrant," Jessamy said.
She told the committee that the legislation "would go a long way to making sure we have a lot of what we needed to get a conviction before an arrest was made."
The measure doesn't go as far as she wants to go. Three years ago, Jessamy asked the Police Department to agree that officers would not seek charges in 10 serious crimes, including murder, unless a prosecutor gave them authorization. The police refused to give her veto authority, and Jessamy gave up her quest.
She renewed it last year after a series of articles in The Sun entitled "Justice Undone" reported that during a five-year period, only three of every 10 homicides in Baltimore were punished with a lengthy prison sentence. In the other seven cases, no one was arrested or the defendant was acquitted, received a light sentence or saw prosecutors drop the case for lack of evidence.
Mayor Martin O'Malley and former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris turned her down flat. "You're not going to have people arrested unless you have a slam-dunk conviction on your hands," Norris said in November.
Added O'Malley, "She has the power to determine what cases she wants to try."
John McEntee, deputy police commissioner for operations, made it clear yesterday that the O'Malley administration's position hasn't changed.
"We certainly stand here today in opposition," he told the committee.
McEntee noted that prosecutors at the Central Booking and Intake Facility now immediately review misdemeanor arrests made by an officer who allegedly witnessed illegal activity. Often, prosecutors drop the cases on the spot.
"They have that same ability with those same prosecutors to look at a warrant that's been filed, the individual's been arrested, and if they don't want to pursue the criminal charges, they can drop the charges," McEntee said.
He also complained of the bill's requirement for a 24-hour waiting period once a police charging document is presented to prosecutors for a recommendation, saying public safety could be jeopardized.
"Many felony cases in Baltimore City involve retaliation among competing drug dealers and drug organizations as well as retaliation against witnesses," he said. "The imposition of this 24-hour waiting period could jeopardize the safety of individuals involved in the case."
Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat, told Jessamy, "The city has a good point here" and wondered if the legislature was being asked to settle a "rift" between Jessamy and the mayor.