In an effort to end a series of embarrassing missteps in major investigations, Baltimore law enforcement officials announced an agreement yesterday to allow the city's state's attorney to review police charging documents in serious criminal cases before they go to District Court commissioners or judges.
The agreement appears to end a three-year dispute between the city's prosecutor and the Police Department over the charging of defendants, which State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says is critical to ensure that cases are solid before moving through the judicial process.
If prosecutors and police had not reached an agreement, some lawmakers in Annapolis were ready to give Jessamy charging authority through a bill in the General Assembly. The legislation's sponsor said yesterday that he plans to withdraw the measure because of the agreement.
"I am very optimistic that we will get exactly what we need to improve the justice system in Baltimore City," Jessamy said of the agreement. "The overall objective is to get better cases, cases that we get better prosecutorial results from."
While the police will maintain control of charging authority, police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said the department agreed to increase communication in felony cases and meet twice a month with prosecutors to discuss investigations.
To further strengthen cases, Clark said he is increasing training and instituting more oversight by police supervisors of detectives' investigations.
"In certain cases, there will be certain reviews by the state's attorney's office and suggestions as to additional investigative steps that have to be taken, reasonable steps, of course," Clark said. "We'll go back and make our best attempts to accomplish those steps."
The department and the state's attorney's office are working on guidelines for the process and plan to have procedures in place by July 1.
The agreement mirrors the Assembly bill that would give prosecutors 24 hours to make a recommendation to commissioners or judges about charges.
With the dispute between the state's attorney and the police apparently resolved, Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a West Baltimore Democrat, said he saw no need to push his bill. He said letters from Jessamy and Clark satisfied his concerns.
"I think this will work," Hughes said. "It shouldn't be necessary to have a piece of legislation in this area. No other jurisdiction requires legislation to resolve this kind of problem."
Hughes introduced the bill after complaints from Jessamy and her assistants during the past three years that police sometimes bring charges on such weak evidence that prosecutors have to drop the cases.
Jessamy again raised her concern after a series of articles in The Sun last year reported that during a five-year period, only three of every 10 homicides in Baltimore were punished with a lengthy prison sentence.
But Mayor Martin O'Malley and former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris rejected Jessamy's proposal for prosecutors to have veto power in charging serious felonies. Resolving the dispute became difficult because O'Malley and Jessamy have had a sometimes bitter public relationship.
Clark, who took office last month, has pledged to work with the state's attorney, particularly in regard to the charging of defendants.
"There has been a tremendous amount of progress in this area," he said. "We're talking about more case management and more interaction with the state's attorney's office."
Clark, Jessamy and their staffs met this week to resolve differences between agencies and establish the agreement.
"The procedures discussed and agreed to should result in significant improvements in case preparation in these cases and improve communication between both agencies," Clark wrote to Hughes.
The new process is expected to have a fiscal effect on both departments. Jessamy said she estimates the cost to her agency would be less than $1 million.
"I'm hopeful that everybody can see that it's going to be better for the entire system," she said. "In the overall scheme of things, that's a small price to pay. We really want to get violent people off the streets."
Sun staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.