New state's attorney will face a flood of challenges

Defendant after shackled defendant rises before the judge, who in the space of mere minutes determines that this one will remain in jail to await trial, or that one will get sprung on bail. Despite the variety of charges that landed them here — assault with hot soup or a shard of glass, stalking by Facebook, the garden-variety disorderly conducts and destructions of property — they soon become a nearly undistinguishable line of sleepy, mostly silent men and women whose cases are not so much heard as processed.

It is the bottom of the criminal justice system: the bail review hearing for the recently arrested that takes place every day at the Central Booking and Intake Center in downtown Baltimore. With change afoot at the highest levels of the justice system — after 15 years, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has been ousted by defense lawyer Gregg Bernstein — those who follow crime and punishment in the city are watching to see how the shake-up at the top will ripple down through the system.

Bernstein won the Democratic primary election last week on a campaign for tougher prosecution in the wake of several highly publicized murders, with one charge in particular resonating above others: Jessamy had let too many violent offenders go free through the revolving door of the criminal justice system, putting them back on the streets to commit ever more serious crimes.

But with the hot lights of politics dimmed, now comes the day-in, day-out juggling of cases in the busy prosecutor's office in one of America's most crime-ridden big cities.

The campaign could focus on systemic issues such as conviction rates or headline-grabbing murders such as that of young Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn. But the greater weight bearing down on Baltimore's next state's attorney, judicial observers say, comes on the ground floor, from places like Central Booking.

It is there that prosecutors fight crime at the retail level, confronting questions of which cases to dismiss, which to plea-bargain, which to take to trial in hopes of conviction — with the ever present fear that the wrong decision will come back to haunt them. One mistake, or a series of them, and a John Wagner — the repeat offender accused of killing Pitcairn — is on the street instead of behind bars.

"I think the community has lost faith in the criminal justice system in general," Bernstein said Friday. "The community has been frustrated with the revolving door… that puts people who commit crimes back on the street."

He said he plans to start tracking the office's conviction rate as a measure of its effectiveness, and enlist everyone — from police to the public defender's office to judges and residents — to make the streets safer.

Even an hour spent in the Central Booking courtroom, though, gives a sense of the mountain of cases that prosecutors must confront and wrestle into some sort of order. Seventeen cases came up in that single hour, with all the players pretty much assuming their assigned roles: the prosecutor generally asking for bail to remain at its current level or revoked outright because the person is too dangerous to let go, the public defender asking for a reduction, or making whatever case is possible that the defendant is not a flight risk.

"He is 55 years of age," the defense lawyer offered about the gray-haired, bearded man accused of second-degree assault after hitting a woman who previously had been accused of assaulting him.

On this particular day, most defendants seemed to have been arrested after similar fights — roommates, girlfriends and other ill-defined relationships that end up in a squabble over a car or breaking something in someone's house. And then there are the more alarming-sounding cases: the purported glass-shard-wielding woman. The four other women who allegedly barged into a home and assaulted someone, fleeing when the police arrived, with the three who were caught appearing one after the other.

Many slouch or nap on the benches until their names are called. They're mostly silent, and in fact are encouraged by the public defender not to say anything that might be used against them at a later trial. As they're either returned to a cell or sent to make bail arrangements, others are brought it to take their places.

To some, this veritable avalanche of crimes that needs to be funneled through the justice system dwarfs any one person, even so vital a position as the city's top prosecutor.

"Initially I think he will try to come in as a much tougher prosecutor, but then reality will set in," said A. Dwight Pettit, a longtime defense attorney who supported Jessamy's re-election efforts.

Part of that reality, Pettit said, includes things that can't be changed merely by number of votes — budget constraints, the city's "horrendous" drug problem, which spawns much of the criminal activity, the continuing witness intimidation issue — which make the prosecutor's job all the harder.

"If you want to try every crime and not plea anything," Pettit said, "the court system will grind to a halt."

With no opponent in the November general election, Bernstein will enter office in January with the goodwill but also the expectations of voters, who will want to see promises from the campaign translate into the reality of safer streets.

A newcomer to elected office, he said Friday that Baltimoreans will see immediate changes in "transparency and accountability" once he takes the reins.

"They'll see a state's attorney and a state's attorney's office that keep and maintain conviction rates so the public knows how we're performing," he said, after Jessamy conceded the race and pledged to support him. "That's what people will see right away."

University of Maryland law professor Douglas Colbert, whose legal clinic students sometimes assist defendants through the bail review process, places hope in Bernstein's campaign promise to target the office's limited resources to the most dangerous cases.

"Bernstein is an experienced prosecutor and defense lawyer. He knows which individuals and which crimes deserve the most attention," he said. "I think he's given some significant indications that he wants to give primary attention to crimes against people."

The biggest jam-up occurs at the beginning, Colbert said, with too many minor offenders kept in jail while they await trial because they're too poor to afford bail. Even if their cases are ultimately dismissed, they've already put in weeks or months in jail, he said.

"The process becomes the punishment," he said.

That can have an effect beyond the individual, who might lose a job or schooling while languishing in jail, Colbert said.

"You're increasing the alienation of the community," he said. "Police then can't count on that person to be a witness if they then see something, a shooting. I've heard that: 'We're not going to help some prosecutor that left my son in jail for a month.' So there's a big cost."

Colbert said decisions about which cases to focus on and which to make go away without trial should be made earlier, thus freeing prosecutors to work on the criminals who truly pose a public danger. "These decisions can be made. You talk to the police officer, 'Is this a bad guy?'"

Police were among Bernstein's most public supporters, from the police commissioner to the police union. The current and sometimes strained relationship between police and prosecutors became a campaign issue — the Bernstein camp said it prevented a unified front in fighting crime; Jessamy said she shouldn't and wouldn't rubber-stamp everything the police wanted.

Bob Cherry, a police detective and president of the Fraternal Order of Police union, which endorsed Bernstein, said he now anticipates more cooperation between the Police Department and the state's attorney's office. He welcomes Bernstein's call to try more cases, particularly those involving more violent offenders.

"There's a lot of frustration when you have a good handgun case or a shooting and you see the defendant walking out with a suspended sentence," he said. "We'll see a lot of police officers getting more experience in putting their cases on."

For most officers, simply having someone other than Jessamy leading the state's attorney's office will be a new experience.

"Three-quarters of our department has 15 years [of service] or less," Cherry said, referring to Jessamy's tenure in office. "They have only known Mrs. Jessamy as the state's attorney."

On Friday, the intensely fought campaign had been resolved with Jessamy's concession, and both the outgoing and incoming state's attorneys spoke about working cooperatively for a smooth transition.

She chuckled when asked what advice she had for her successor, saying only that she told him what "an exceptional staff" she has, and that he indicated he would continue to seek her counsel during the transition.

Meanwhile, Bernstein paid respect to his predecessor's service even as he made clear that Baltimoreans will see immediate changes after he takes over.

While Jessamy's spokeswoman, Margaret Burns, took a prominent public role, Bernstein apparently has no plans for a similar stand-in.

"I think as a state's attorney," he said, "you need to be the public face."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad