An acquittal, but perhaps not freedom

The Baltimore Sun

Just about three months ago, Charles Carroll's family celebrated as a Baltimore jury announced they had acquitted him of rape. Today, his relatives worry that evidence from the same crime will be used to send him to prison for 15 years.

That's because Carroll is a convicted murderer, and his arrest in the rape case - even though he was later found not guilty - was enough to trigger a violation of probation hearing.

Carroll's friends and relatives hoisted neon-green poster boards outside the downtown courthouse last night as his mother, Dana Bankins, shouted into a bullhorn: "He has been behind bars for a crime he did not commit. ... A jury of his peers found him not guilty."

It's an example of a strategy prosecutors are turning to more and more, as documented Sunday by an article in The Sun.

Prosecutors are pursuing violation of probation (VOP) hearings in cases where they have lost or dropped charges but have another means to put people they believe to be dangerous back in prison.

It is easier to win a conviction in a VOP hearing than in a regular criminal trial. The standard of proof is lower. The rules of evidence are much more lax. And judges, rather than often-skeptical city juries, decide guilt or innocence.

Defense attorneys have described the procedure as an end-run around justice, saying that without the checks and balances of a full criminal trial, innocent people - though they are ex-convicts - could end up in prison.

However, a 1992 Court of Appeals decision upheld the practice, as have recent high-court decisions in other states, including Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Yesterday, Bankins said her son was falsely accused of sexual assault and that the jury's not-guilty verdict should have ended his case. Instead, Judge Roger Brown will hear testimony today from witnesses and review evidence before deciding whether Carroll has violated his probation.

"What they're telling us is that our ex-offenders don't have a second chance," Bankins said last night in front of the courthouse. "And I have a problem with that."

At age 17, in 1994, Carroll shot a man to death. But he turned himself in, his mother said, confessed, and did his time.

Brown was the judge who originally sentenced Carroll to 30 years in prison, with 15 years suspended, after Carroll pleaded guilty in 1995 to second-degree murder. Brown also placed Carroll on a five-year probation that began when he was released from prison in 2002. One of the rules of probation is to obey all laws.

After Carroll's release, he "turned his life around," Bankins said. He became a teacher at the private Christian school his daughter attended. But it was at Community Initiatives Academy in East Baltimore that accusations of a new crime arose.

In 2005, he was charged with groping a 13-year-old girl several times over three months, then raping her on a classroom floor. Two other students, ages 13 and 17, also said that Carroll sexually assaulted them.

A jury acquitted Carroll of rape in late August, and prosecutors dropped charges last month in the other two cases. All three cases were based largely on the testimony of the girls.

But even as they abandoned the criminal cases, prosecutors said they would be trying to keep Carroll in prison - he has been behind bars since his arrest in 2005 - through violation of his probation.

That's what happened to Elijah Snow. A jury acquitted him in September of carrying a deadly weapon, a kitchen knife, through downtown Baltimore.

Last month, a judge determined that even though the evidence did not convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, it was enough to find Snow in violation of the probation he was on for two armed carjackings. The judge sentenced Snow to two years in prison.

And in 2005, Bernard Pratt, a convicted murderer, escaped conviction on misdemeanor drug charges, but was sent to prison for 10 years anyway on a violation of probation.

In addition to Carroll's, three other such cases are scheduled for this week. One case scheduled for yesterday, Lamar Wallace, who is accused of violating probation by dealing drugs, was postponed until March.

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