Watchdog initiative for courts falls short

About 20 business executives flocked to City Hall at a moment's notice in July 2002 to back up Mayor Martin O'Malley as he made an unusual plea.

Saying he was sick of Baltimore criminals getting off easy in city courts, the mayor called on private citizens to monitor gun cases, pressuring prosecutors and judges to get tough on violent offenders. The executives pledged to make the court watchdog plan work.


But it has not come to pass.

Once celebrated by O'Malley aides as proof of his creative thinking, toughness on crime and considerable sway over the business community, the plan has evolved into two academic studies, one of which has nothing to do with violent crime. The other is not under way.


"Basically, it became clear to us that staffing a full-scale court watch process with executives from the Baltimore business community, it wasn't feasible," said Gene Bracken, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group that took charge of the project.

"There are too many courts," he said. "There are too many venues. We realized we just don't have the manpower to do something like that."

Angry over the release of a West Baltimore teen charged with shooting 10-year-old Tevin Montrel Davis a year and a half ago, O'Malley called on business leaders and volunteers to sit in on court cases. Under the plan, the observers would periodically write reports on which judges and prosecutors were following state sentencing guidelines and which were letting violent criminals off easy.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the watchdog idea was just one offshoot of the mayor's anti-crime Believe campaign, which has had other successes.

"This was all part of a much larger effort to combat drugs and crime," Guillory said. "Did the effort produce something? Yes. ... Lots of other important efforts are now under way."

Those steps range from increased helicopter patrols to the recruitment of 100 mentors for local youth, according to a Believe status report.

The demise of the watchdog program is no disappointment for the state's attorney's office. O'Malley fiercely criticized prosecutors for their handling of the Davis case when he unveiled the plan.

"Successful prosecution of violent offenders and ultimately sentencing by the courts should not resort to an adversarial game of 'gotcha' between law enforcement, the courts and the community," said Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.


The watchdog plan was announced with great fanfare and urgency July 24, 2002, just two hours after side-by-side newspaper articles put the idea into O'Malley's head.

At 8 that morning, O'Malley noticed two stories in that day's Sun. One reported the fatal drive-by shooting of a 13-year-old West Baltimore boy. The other described a plan by the Downtown Partnership business group to create a "court watch" program, in which business people would observe and testify in nuisance-crime cases.

O'Malley asked himself at the time: If the business community can monitor the nuisance crimes that detract from downtown, why can't it keep watch over the violent cases that make other parts of the city unsafe?

By 10 a.m., O'Malley was announcing the watchdog program at a news conference at City Hall. He was flanked by about 20 executives who had hastily canceled appointments and ducked out of meetings to support the mayor's plan.

"I don't know what it is. I'm not sure exactly what we're supposed to do," Donald P. Hutchinson, then president of the GBC, said at the time. "But I do think there will be a positive response" once the initiative is fleshed out.

But that didn't turn out to be the case, as busy executives determined they could not "spend gobs of time sitting in a courtroom," Bracken said.


The Downtown Partnership's court watch program did become a reality, marking its first anniversary in October. Downtown business people, who want the courts to take offenses such as littering and public urination more seriously, attend District Court and offer to testify on the impact of those crimes.

When it became clear that the mayor's watchdog program for gun cases would not materialize, Bracken said, the GBC commissioned two court studies.

One, conducted by the University of Maryland Law School, looked at the frequency with which District Court defendants request jury trials in Circuit Court. That can be a problem because Circuit Court, which handles the most serious crimes, gets clogged with misdemeanor District Court cases, Bracken said. The study is in draft form. No date has been set for its release.

The second study will be conducted by University of Baltimore Law School students. Details are being worked out, but the students probably will examine gun and violent-crime cases "to get a sense of what is going with those cases," Bracken said.

That study might explore issues such as sentencing and bail that the watchdog program would have focused on, but it will not be "a full-scale court monitoring" program, Bracken said.