The Sun asked the candidates for Baltimore state's attorney to complete a questionnaire as part of our endorsement process. The questions were derived from suggestions made by readers. After reading the responses, please let us know which candidate you support and why, either on the editorial board's blog, Second Opinion, or by sending an e-mail to email@example.com. A selection of readers' comments will appear alongside our endorsement.
Democrat Patricia Jessamy's responses to The Sun's questionnaire:
1. Summarize your education and professional experience. How does your background fit the current needs of the state's attorney's office?
My interest in a legal career is tied to an experience in my teens, about 1965, when I joined with several other plaintiffs in my hometown of Hollandale, Mississippi to address segregation in many local gathering spots, such as the movie theatre, library and lunch counters. As a plaintiff in the lawsuit, I appeared in federal court and had the opportunity to see lawyers in action. This experience led me to attend law school at the University of Mississippi after graduating from Jackson State University in 1970.
Following my graduation from law school, I worked as a private practice attorney in Cleveland, Mississippi. In addition to representing criminal defendants, civil litigants and others, I also handled civil rights cases on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. One case, a Section V voting rights case resulted in greater representation for African-Americans on the Grenada City Council. As a defense attorney, I successfully represented one of the early "burning bed cases" where my client suffered emotional and physical domestic violence abuse over a period of years. I continued to work as a defense attorney after moving to Michigan, and was later employed as an assistant county prosecutor in Genesee County (Flint) Michigan. When we later relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, I worked as a staff attorney for the Social Security Administration.
After moving to Baltimore, I accepted a position as a staff attorney in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office in 1985. I chose the path of a prosecutor because I believe the fair, equitable and just application of the law is vitally important. A defense attorney works for one individual. A prosecutor works for the people.
As chief prosecutor in Baltimore, I bring a very broad, diverse life experience to this position. While I devote considerable time and energy to my job, I also have volunteered in many different non-profit organizations and have served in a leadership capacity on foundations and boards. I am committed to building a stronger community. My community and civic involvement includes current and prior service on the boards of the United Way of Central Maryland (Board Chair 2000-2003), the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore Child Abuse Center and the Elijah Cummings Youth in Israel Program and a number of others.
2. What additional efforts can the state's attorney's office undertake to protect witnesses who feel threatened? What strategies can the office employ to move cases forward when witnesses or victims are reluctant to testify?
Before I answer what additional efforts are needed I would like to comment on the ways I have addressed witness and victim issues as Baltimore's top prosecutor.
In 1999, I joined with Maryland prosecutors to seek a statewide victim witness protection fund that is supported through the collection of state fees and fines. The fund is administered by the Maryland State's Attorneys Association (MSAA), and each local jurisdiction in Maryland can apply for annual grant funding to help pay for specific expenses related to witness relocation and protection. The fund is outlined in Maryland law. For almost a decade we have successfully used this fund to help defray the cost of operating our witness assistance program and to expand relocation and protection services offered to our victims and witnesses. This statewide fund is limited to the fines and fees collected each year.
In 1994, as Deputy State's Attorney I developed the Baltimore City Victim Witness Assistance program following the murder of a high profile witness at a local hotel who was to testify in a federal narcotics trial. Over time, the program, which offers services to victims and witnesses involved in pending criminal cases where an arrest has been made (another program is offered by the police department and is operated by the city), has expanded to include a variety of services. Our program has never lost a witness who has followed the guidelines of the program.
Statistics indicate that approximately one-third of all persons referred by prosecutors to our victim assistance program do not follow up with meetings with our professional staff and do not sign an agreement to participate. Our program has grown to include two full-time victim protection specialists and a Hispanic victim specialist who meet with and work to address the needs of victims and witnesses every day.
In 2004, as part of my annual legislative agenda, I supported legislation to increase the maximum penalty imposed for witness intimidation, which at that time was classified as a misdemeanor. I attended hearings with prosecutors, testified, outlined evidence of witness intimidation and attempted to show legislators the effects of recanting witnesses, underground witnesses and threatened witnesses on criminal prosecutions, especially violence cases. The law did not pass. Not deterred, in 2005, I brought along a new marketing tool in my quest for a stronger bill and the new law passed.
On the first day of the legislative session in 2005, I brought along dozens of copies of the DVD "Stop Snitchin" and distributed copies to legislators to illustrate what our prosecutors face when witnesses fail to appear in court or if they are threatened or intimidated.
Other actions have included:
I testified in favor of a "shielding provision" that keeps victim and witness personal information out of publicly accessed Internet files and limits access to certain information located only in court office files rather than the Internet.
We have routinely trained prosecutors in the use of protective orders to protect the release of a witness or victim's identity and to shield statements and their personal information from public access in certain cases.
I have encouraged the Baltimore Police Department to increase its use of taped or recorded statements to memorialize a victim or witness statement in order to preserve the statement for future court proceedings.
There is more work to be done, however two immediate steps that are high priorities:
• Continue to build stronger community partnerships to increase public trust and confidence of cooperating witnesses — working hand in hand with our community
• Work to pass federal legislation to secure additional funds for broader witness protection programs — a key partnership with Congressman Elijah Cummings
4. What should the relationship between the police and the state's attorney's office be like?
Over the years, I have worked hard to find common ground with all seven police commissioners, particularly in the area of reducing violent crime. I have worked well with Commissioner Bealefeld on our Violent Crime Initiative. Prosecutors in our office have devoted considerable efforts to work with detectives on the identification and prosecution or violent repeat offenders and expediting arrest information electronically. The Commissioner and I have had many discussions on violent offenders, murder investigations, police misconduct issues and other complex issues that need to be addressed by our mutual agencies. On the lighter side, we have participated together in shared office initiatives and endeavors such as the 911Race to Remember, the Victim's Fund Run, and an annual golf tournament to raise money for the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
While the vast majority of Baltimore City's police officers are hard working, committed public servants, there are some who engage in criminal misconduct. When it is appropriate, I must prosecute those who do so.
5. What policies and practices of the state's attorney's office, if any, do you believe need to be changed?
One important issue that affects our operations is the lack of contiguous space for our employees. Our operations can be hampered by the fact that we are spread between several downtown court buildings. Despite a fiber network that streamlines all operations between buildings, we do not interact with each other as a full team as often as I would like. Contiguous space also allows for better and more efficient use of resources. For our large meetings, such as full staff meetings, we need to locate and negotiate the use of space controlled by other agencies, such as the War Memorial building.
For many years I have held a long-term goal to secure a new courthouse that would allow sufficient space for all courthouse related functions and provide greater security and safety for employees, jurors, and the public.
Additionally, I would like to continue the progress that we have made working closely with the police on charging authority in felony cases. There has been real progress in homicides and shooting cases, however, there are other felony detective investigative units where charging could be improved by consulting with prosecutors prior to writing arrest warrants.
6. What can the state's attorney's office do to ensure that the original prosecutor of someone equally familiar with the case is present in violation of probation hearings?
First it is important to note that judges follow individual cases when they place defendants on probation. Probation is a promise by an offender to avoid incarceration and to remain in the community crime free. It is a civil contract between the judge and the offender. Because it is a civil proceeding and not a criminal matter, Maryland law does not require prosecutors to be present at violation of probation proceedings.
However, in an effort to bolster the probation violation cases that involve serious violent offenders, I added a team of three prosecutors in 2005 to handle these dockets spread over 35 judges in the Circuit Court. This means that a judge will hear all violation of probation (VOPS) cases and the court sets the times and dates of these hearings on a varied schedule, month to month.
While it may sound like a good idea to have vertical prosecution on VOPs, it is unlikely that with our current staffing levels and the caseloads the prosecutors now carry that they could flex their schedules to attend court ordered collateral hearings in addition to their primary responsibility of prosecuting crime.
As chief prosecutor I have implemented a policy of vertical prosecution in all felony cases. This insures that victims and witnesses interact with the same prosecutor during all court hearings. This also assures uniformity and consistency with the detective assigned and for the best possible prosecution to be achieved.
Currently, there are fewer than 200 prosecutors in the State's Attorney's Office due to budgetary constraints. Prosecutors are responsible for reviewing 4,800 juvenile cases, 50,000 on-view arrests at Central Booking, child support cases, 100,000 district court and domestic violence cases, 5,500 misdemeanor jury trial prayers and 5,000 new felony cases each year. Three prosecutors handle over 20,000 violations of probation hearings annually. In addition, prosecutors handle hundreds of post-convictions, habeas corpus and other miscellaneous hearings annually.
Without the infusion of additional resources, it would be logistically impossible for prosecutors to continue to cover their felony criminal case dockets and the violation of probation dockets.
7. What can the state's attorney's office do to mitigate the chronic delays and postponements in the Baltimore Circuit Court?
These delays are largely a result of the limited court resources (courts, prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs) and defendants' legal strategies. Over the past decade the state's attorney's office has participated in many different meetings of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to reduce postponements and chronic delays. These efforts have led to much improvement. Three years ago, on average, it took a murder case approximately 18 months to come to trial. Now, that time is closer to nine months to a year. While there remain cases that are outside of these averages, the court has attempted to address this on a regular basis, and we have seen improvements.
This is the result of a cooperative partnership that should be acknowledged, however additional work remains.
8. According to a 2009 Sun analysis of data from the state's attorney's office, 478 murder cases were adjudicated in Baltimore in 2006-2008. Of those, nearly 40 percent results in not guilty verdicts, dropped charges or pleas or conviction on lesser charges. Among cases that went to trial, prosecutors' record of getting murder convictions was about 50-50. What factors contribute to this conviction rate and what can the state's attorney's office do to improve it?
The most important factors that improve prosecution at trial include a well investigated case and witnesses who stay on board throughout the trial preparation and court date. Our prosecutors work hard, along with police detectives, to make sure this occurs and this can include contact with the witness locator team of detectives in homicide and felony cases.
It is clear that Baltimore prosecutors are successfully prosecuting murder and other violence cases and sending violent offenders to prison. Annual statistics prepared by the Maryland Division of Correction (included as attachment) indicate that Baltimore prosecutors sent approximately 6,000 defendants to prison for periods of incarceration that exceed one year in fiscal 2009. This represents more than 60 percent of all inmates sentenced to the Maryland Division of Correction in that year.
9. Does the state's attorney's office need additional resources? If so, what are the needs and how would the money be spent?
I have already touched on the need for better space for prosecutors. There is an urgent need to address a shortage of space and to cultivate a more pleasant work environment. There are no conference rooms or meeting rooms for large groups. Prosecutors share bathrooms with defendants and jurors. There are no lunch facilities, and we often have few working elevators.
We need additional staff attorneys and support staff, but unless the entire system is funded, many of the challenges caused by high volume will continue.
I have established a very small team of prosecutors, forensic experts, who are looking at the very detailed, comprehensive and complex prosecution of cases involving high degrees of technology. These include the analysis of computerized data, cell phone and other communication data, DNA and other forensic applications.
Because technology is constantly evolving, we need trained prosecutors to assure that the search and seizure of communication devices and computers, and the information obtained, is done in a constitutionally permissible way. Prosecutors must be able to understand the information recovered and be able to use it as evidence and in a manner that is understood by jurors.
Additionally, it becomes very important that we utilize our laboratory resources prudently. The forensics unit works to assure that this happens.