State's attorney staff bids farewell to century-old offices

Three moving trucks hauled furniture out of the city's Circuit Court buildings Saturday, as the Baltimore state's attorney's office left its century-old lodgings inside for an upgrade that prosecutors say will protect crime victims and witnesses.

"This move represents a sea change in our operations that will substantially contribute to our efficacy and efficiency," State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said. He added that he thanked the state and city "for recognizing the importance and need for space that will better position us to fight for the safety and security of our citizens."

In an $11 million, 10-year deal approved by the Board of Estimates last October, the state's attorney's office will take over three floors in the SunTrust building on East Baltimore Street. Prosecutors will keep a few desks in the courthouse to use between appearances before judges.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, said the lack of space left victims and witnesses waiting in the court's public corridors when they came in to be interviewed and help out on cases. Prosecutors worried that defendants, who are paraded in shackles up and down those same corridors on their way to and from court, might spot them, exposing the witnesses to harassment and intimidation.

The old offices also did not have personal voicemail boxes for prosecutors, and open partition walls made it hard to have private conversations.

Bernstein's plan for a move began to take shape in February last year, but had to overcome opposition from lawmakers and secure funding from the city and state.

Councilman Brandon Scott said Saturday that he is still not sure the move is a good deal, and questioned the wisdom of putting the interests of one agency crammed into the courthouse above others.

Opened in January 1900, what is now the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse was designed as a grand civic monument — one courtroom features pillars made of marble from the Vatican quarry in Italy — but in recent years, court employees have complained of grimy conditions.

"Everybody knows that the courthouse is in disrepair," Scott said. "We cannot pick one group of employees over another, and that's essentially what we're doing."

Scott added that he understood the argument about protecting witnesses, but noted that deputy sheriffs are on hand in the court and said the city should be working to protect witnesses wherever they are.

But retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. said he was glad the city decided to back Bernstein's plan. "There is a certain amount of confidentiality that is absolutely essential to the prosector's function," he said.

Murphy, who went to work at the firm of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, and White after retiring, said that being in a separate building will also make clear that the state's attorney's office is not part of the judicial system, and will emphasize that judges and prosecutors are not necessarily allies.

The public defender's office, he said, has long benefited from having its own offices for the same reason, he added.

Murphy worked as a Baltimore prosecutor in the 1970s, a time when the state's attorney's office was growing — the size of the staff tripled while he was there, he said, and even then his unit used some rooms in the Equitable Building on Fayette Street.

The current prosectors' offices had been scattered across the two Circuit Court buildings on either side of North Calvert Street. While Bernstein's office was marked by a frosted glass door with gold-stenciled lettering and decorated with heavy wood paneling, the other spaces sported grubby tile floors and flimsy partitions.

By Friday, much of the furniture and mountains of paper files had been moved out, and Cheshire said without them it was hard to get a sense of the cramped conditions prosecutors worked in.

Inside Bernstein's office just a few personal effects remained to be moved, among them framed Baltimore Sun pages reporting his 2010 election victory over Patricia C. Jessamy.

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