Phillip West is charged with the cold-blooded murder — a few days before Christmas — of Rodney Beaman Jr., allegedly shooting him to death just after midnight inside a popular Fells Point bar. Mr. West has a prior federal felony conviction for which he spent nine years in prison. He was apprehended only after finally surrendering to police last week, three weeks after a murder warrant was issued for him.
Unbelievably, the next day, Mr. West was home.
There is no excuse for the outrageous decision of a city judge to release a homicide defendant on electronic monitoring and a $100,000 bail. Prosecutors should have no trouble getting this dangerous error swiftly reversed.
But there’s more here to set right than an isolated, errant judgment.
As a city prosecutor, I never saw a single case in which a person charged with first-degree murder was released on bail. Mr. West became the exception to the rule and went home on a bail more typical of a defendant charged with assault or resisting arrest, not murder, because he could afford to.
He hired one of Maryland’s most expensive and effective defense attorneys, the kind of lawyer whose rates you pay to persuade a pliable district court judge to bend norms and do the unthinkable. And then Mr. West presumably forked over enough to a bail bondsman — likely around 10 percent of $100,000 — to read news of his arrest on Monday from his dining room table on Tuesday.
In federal court where I started my career, there is no cash bail. Mr. West exploited features of a predatory state industry that makes poor defendants charged with petty offenses languish in prison while rich perpetrators indicted on violent crimes pay and go home. This system survives in only two countries in the world: the United States and the Philippines, a regressive, authoritarian regime.
Under federal law, there is also a presumption against releasing a person charged with violent gun crimes. Defendants can overcome this presumption only by showing they are not a flight risk or a danger to the public. Maryland should adopt this same rule. It would prevent the impulsive release of defendants like Mr. West; it would curb the cash bail roulette wheel currently in operation; and instead of another round of finger pointing, it would convert public outcry into a practical improvement.
Because, if we’re to be honest, this judge’s casual treatment of a murder case is symptomatic of a far bigger problem: Violence has bled into the psyche of the city, death is becoming routine, and too many of our neighbors are losing hope that anything can be done.
This erosion of faith is not the fault of judges. Today, Baltimore has among the highest rates of murders and opioid overdose deaths in America with nearly 3,200 murders and over 3,900 fatal overdoses in the past dozen years. That’s more than 7,000 people — 1 percent of Baltimore’s population — who lost their lives to guns or drugs, yet these tragedies rarely make the evening news or the front page of our papers anymore.
We should abolish cash bail and adopt the federal presumption against release in violent gun cases. But this will not erase the gnawing indifference or growing acceptance of crime produced by four consecutive years of relentless violence. For that, we need a sense of urgency and outrage to match the moment — and we need it now. Otherwise, a murder defendant released on bail will become the norm, not the exception.
Thiru Vignarajah was deputy attorney general of Maryland and previously served as a federal and city prosecutor in Baltimore City. He can be reached at email@example.com.