Victims' fund assists felons

The Baltimore Sun

Deandra M. Gaskins once pointed a handgun at the face of a woman leaving a corner store and demanded money, saying, "Kick it out." The armed robber is also a convicted car thief and drug dealer who has been arrested at least eight times on Baltimore's streets.

In May 2005, less than two weeks after he was charged with selling heroin out of a gas station, Gaskins was wounded in a drive-by shooting in South Baltimore.

When thousands of dollars in hospital bills came in, he turned to the state for help. And he got it.

The Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund, created 40 years ago to assist victims of crime, paid more than $42,000.

Nearly $1.8 million from the fund has been awarded to drug dealers, violent offenders and other criminals since 2003, according to a Sun analysis of thousands of records obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act. In Baltimore alone, awards went to at least 147 convicted felons like Gaskins.

Awards helped bury a carjacker, a Bloods gang member who was shot to death by a fellow Blood, and a drug dealer killed after a dispute at a strip club. Even prisoners have been helped: A sex offender was compensated for medical bills after being assaulted in prison, and burial expenses were paid to the families of two convicted murderers.

In Florida, Ohio and at least six other states, felons are restricted or banned from receiving money from victim compensation funds. Maryland's approach is more forgiving.

"If someone with an extensive criminal background who has changed their life and is moving on and they happened to be the innocent victim of a crime, why shouldn't that person be compensated?" said Sandy A. Roberts, chairman of the board that administers the fund. "The issue is whether they were involved in a crime at the time they were injured, not their background."

Police and investigators for the fund suspect that some applicants are street criminals who were hurt or killed by assailants looking to settle a score. But a 2002 ruling by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals made clear that a denial by the board must rest on supporting evidence, such as a gun or drugs, that a victim was participating in a crime when injured.

"Some of these guys, I don't want to pay them, but the law prevents me from denying it," said Robin Woolford, the board's executive director, who oversees claims investigations.

Presented with The Sun's findings, some members of the compensation board, which is appointed by the governor, said state law needed to be reviewed.

"The whole intention is to help people who are the innocent victims of crime or their families," said John W. Derr, a former state senator from Frederick who serves on the board. If funds are going to violent criminals, he said, "I think we've got to take a serious look at that. And there is a problem."

217 offenders awarded

Of the 6,502 cases that The Sun analyzed, more than half the applicants were ineligible or denied during a four-and-a-half-year period that ended last August. Of the 2,743 victims who received money from the board, at least 217 had been convicted of crimes, mostly felonies, in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The analysis focused on those convicted in the city, where nearly half of the board's claims originate; had it included other parts of Maryland, the number would have been greater.

The numbers reflect a grim reality in Baltimore, where young men often exist in a cycle of violence in which they are variously perpetrators and victims.

"There is a lot of fluidity between being a victim and being a criminal," said Lisa C. Newmark, co-author of an Urban Institute case study on Maryland's compensation program several years ago. "It's not necessarily two distinct, separate groups of people."

Most of the compensation money, up to a maximum of $45,000 per victim, is used to pay victims' funeral expenses and medical bills that are not covered by insurance or government assistance. Some goes directly to victims in the form of lost wages. A twice-convicted cocaine dealer, for instance, was paid more than $11,800 in lost wages after being wounded in a drive-by shooting.

In 1968, Maryland became one of the first states to create a victim compensation program. The idea: A government is responsible for protecting its citizens and should compensate victims when it fails to do so. Every state now has a program.

In Maryland, the number of claims has risen in recent years, partly because of outreach efforts by fund administrators. Last year, the Maryland program paid out $5.84 million on 824 claims. That compares with $4.37 million paid on 669 claims in 2003, when the board began keeping computer records.

The fund's revenue comes from court fees paid by offenders, a $3 surcharge on traffic tickets and federal aid. No tax dollars are used. But money spent on victim compensation programs limits federal aid to other types of assistance programs, such as domestic violence shelters and counseling services.

That's because state compensation programs are among the first paid from the federal Crime Victims Fund, capped at $590 million this fiscal year, while the other programs get what is left over each year.

In recent years, Congress has cut spending from the Crime Victims Fund, though state compensation programs have not been affected. Instead, the cutbacks are being passed on to programs like House of Ruth and Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland.

North Carolina was the most recent state to ban felons from receiving compensation funds, in 1999. Ohio was among the first, adopting a "clean-hands doctrine" that restricts funds to what a subsequent court ruling described as "law-abiding victims," after that state's program awarded $50,000 in compensation to the spouse of an organized crime figure who was killed in 1979.

At least eight states restrict or ban outright any funds from going to convicted felons, according to the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards. Florida denies money to victims convicted of forcible felonies.

Rodney Doss, who headed Florida's program when the restrictions passed, said that the majority of cases involve "an act of violence perpetrated on a person."

"It just stands to reason that this office ... should do our part in trying to ensure that innocent crime victims that have not demonstrated a propensity [for violence] are people that are eligible for compensation," said Doss, who recently retired.

Gaskins, 31, would not have been eligible had he lived in Florida rather than in Maryland. But he says he deserves help from the fund.

He lives in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood and says he began getting into trouble as a teenager, first stealing a car, then selling heroin. Recounting the holdup in 2001 of the man and woman leaving the corner store, he said he was confronting a junkie who had underpaid him for drugs. He spent five years in prison for the crime, but after his release was again caught selling drugs.

Less than two weeks later, in May 2005, he left Oriole Park, where he worked on stadium cleanup, and stopped by a friend's rowhouse. As he and others hung out on the front steps, a car carrying four men pulled around the corner and stopped in front of his group.

A man in back asked Gaskins what time it was. When Gaskins responded he did not know, the man told him, "You know what time it is," and pointed an assault rifle. Gaskins ran.

"I see big barrels of fire coming toward me," Gaskins said. "It snapped my wrist out of place and slung me up against a wall."

He was wounded in his left hand. Surgery gave him partial use of it. "It hurt me real deeply in a lot of ways," Gaskins, a father of two boys, said of the injury. "I can't play with my kids the way I want to."

Gaskins said he does not know who shot him. Facing hospital bills, he said, he learned of the compensation fund through relatives.

Gaskins, who went on to be convicted in the drug deal at the gas station and faces drug charges from two arrests last year, said felons should get compensation as long as they were not committing a crime when hurt. The state has a responsibility to help them, he said.

"He's in your streets. That's your victim," Gaskins said.

Young men

He in many ways represents those who come before the board: young men, often between the ages of 20 and 29, many from Baltimore, and with a history of drugs. More than 120 people charged with making or dealing drugs in the city have been paid since 2003, records show - including 71 whose families were reimbursed for burial expenses. Only a few of the felons whose claims were approved were women. They included two slain prostitutes.

"One of the most depressing aspects of the job is to get these claims for funeral expenses for all these young people who are murdered in Baltimore City," said Terry Gaidis, a retired parole officer who serves on the board. "There are a lot of different victims that have been assaulted, need medical bills. It's the murders, when these young lives are taken. ... It kind of gets to you."

The majority of applicants are injured during assaults, shootings and stabbings.

Anthony L. Bannerman, a 26-year-old machine operator from Dundalk, had just left his house to get something to eat one night in July 2004 when his fiancee called. She said a man outside was starting trouble with her and her friends.

Bannerman returned and asked the man to leave, but he refused. "It escalated from there," Bannerman said. He does not recall who threw the first punch, but said that the man at one point pulled out a switchblade and stabbed him in the leg and arm.

Bannerman, who had two young children at the time, missed three months of work. Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center sued him over an unpaid bill and began to garnish his wages, Bannerman said. That's when he sought help from the fund, which he had learned about through a pamphlet in the mail. He received more than $6,000 in compensation, most of it to cover lost wages.

Bannerman is a felon: The year before he received funds, he was convicted of selling firearms and drug possession with the intent to distribute. "I made bad decisions," he said.

Woolford said details from fights are often sketchy, and the fund's board relies on testimony from the victims.

Even prisoners can qualify. In at least four cases in recent years, money went to prisoners or their families.

Damon A. Bowie, 33, was serving two life terms at the maximum-security prison in Jessup as the convicted triggerman in a fatal robbery at a Prince George's County restaurant in 1989. Two restaurant employees were killed execution-style, and two other men, including an off-duty county police officer, were wounded in the incident.

Bowie was fatally stabbed in a prison gym in early 2004. The fund paid $5,000 for his burial.

LA Bowie, who set up a Web site to profess his son's innocence, said the fact that his son was in prison should not influence whether he received compensation.

"If you're a victim, you're a victim," Bowie said.

Some victims are high-profile, such as the stabbed inmate, two targets of the D.C.-area sniper and John P. Dowery Jr., a Baltimore man placed in witness protection after he was shot in 2005. The board paid thousands of dollars in hospital expenses the next year for Dowery.

Months later, he was killed in what authorities believe was yet another shooting related to his role as a witness in a federal drug case.

Clear-cut claims

Program administrators say eight out of 10 claims are clear-cut. Many involve ordinary people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mark L. Bigelow got more than $45,000 to cover hospital expenses and lost wages after a brutal attack in 2005 by a man who was his roommate's ex-suitor.

She and Bigelow were in the living room when the assailant broke into their Calvert County home and repeatedly swung a bat at Bigelow's head, taking a chunk out of his skull.

Bigelow, who had no health insurance at the time, needed 10 operations. He hasn't been able to return to work in construction because he frequently suffers dizzy spells. "I'm in the process of slowly trying to find something I can do that will allow me to make a living," said Bigelow, 49.

He called the board "a life-saver." "It has helped me on the mental side to relax a little bit knowing that, somewhere along the line, my medical bills are going to be taken care of."

The board employs nine investigators who look into the circumstances of each crime, reviewing police reports and talking with detectives. The investigator recommends whether the application should be approved, and the final decision is made by the five-member board. At the board's monthly hearings, in a cramped conference room in Northwest Baltimore, applicants explain the circumstances of their injuries.

Half of the claims are denied, said Woolford, decisions that can trigger a lawsuit.

The board's decision to deny compensation to Ezra R. Johnson went as far as Maryland's Court of Special Appeals, which ruled in 2002 that the board must rely on hard evidence of criminal influence to deny a claim.

A police investigator told the board that the 25-year-old Johnson was a "known drug dealer" who was shot in his "territory" in 1999, and that he suspected the crime was drug-related.

The board denied Johnson's request for $32,000 in medical bills. The court ruled that the board had improperly denied the application based solely on "hearsay." Johnson was awarded the money.

Many victims are convicted of crimes after they receive money from the board. That might happen to Gaskins, the man shot in the hand, who is due in court even though he says he's cleaned up after two stints in prison. "I don't run the streets no more," he said.

He is scheduled to be tried in Baltimore District Court this week on a charge of marijuana possession. If convicted, Gaskins would be ordered to do what he did when found guilty of the same crime in 2001: pay a fine into the criminal injuries compensation fund.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

THE DATA AND THE ANALYSIS

In a Maryland Public Information Act request, The Sun obtained data from the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund back to 2003, when the data were computerized. It included records of 6,502 applicants for aid, of which 2,743 were approved and payments made.

Nearly half of the criminal injuries for which victims were paid occurred in Baltimore City. The Sun matched the list of successful applicants with a database of defendants in Baltimore Circuit Court.

A reporter identified 217 people who had been convicted of a crime prior to the date they were compensated. To determine the nature of their crimes, the reporter examined their court records. Of the 217 criminal offenders, 147 were felons.

After complying with The Sun's request, the board pushed for a law that would keep applicants' records from public scrutiny. The bill has been modified to withhold only Social Security numbers. It has not cleared the General Assembly.

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