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In Baltimore, still too many getting away with murder | COMMENTARY

A 17-year-old boy who was washing windows at the I-83 exit ramp for Mt. Royal Avenue near W. North Avenue was shot in an apparent targeted attack on March 2.
A 17-year-old boy who was washing windows at the I-83 exit ramp for Mt. Royal Avenue near W. North Avenue was shot in an apparent targeted attack on March 2. (Amy Davis)

I apologize for going back to this subject, but feel the need. It’s a way to keep from becoming inured to the violence around us. If I think about it and write about it — in the belief that something can be done about it — I resist accepting it as a depressing, intractable fact of Baltimore life.

There have been 2,063 homicides in the city since 2015. Sixty-nine of them have occurred in the first three months of this year and, as of Friday, that was six more than during the same period in 2020. Nonfatal shootings are ahead of last year, too; there have been 131 so far.

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If we think about this too much, we’ll never laugh again.

But if we think about it too little, Baltimore will remain a city of unrealized potential.

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So let’s face it. Things are, for now, worse than last year. What a terrible month March has been, with 24 homicides in 26 days. One of the most recent was the fatal shooting of a man Thursday night in the 1300 block of N. Charles Street. I only mention that one, out of the many I could mention, because it happened in Mid-Town Belvedere. That’s not an area commonly known for violence. The most frequent suffering still takes place in the east and west stretches of the city. If you don’t live there, it’s a problem out of sight and out of mind. You don’t feel the anxiety that goes with seeing children walk past yellow crime-scene tape or Mylar memorials on lamp posts.

I see those things as I move around the city, and it depresses the hell out of me. And, like you, I wonder if Baltimore will ever get to a better place.

The answer to that is complex, but one piece of it — a big piece of it — is the ability of police and prosecutors to stop those who killed once from killing again and to break Baltimore’s insane cycle of retaliatory street justice.

So there’s the question: Are we catching enough killers?

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In my column of March 9, we looked at how the Baltimore Police Department has fared in making arrests in homicides. The BPD reports a year-to-year improvement, with a clearance rate of 40% in 2020, up from 32% in 2019.

But an analysis by Thiru Vignarajah, the former city and federal prosecutor who ran for mayor last year, showed a much lower clearance rate. Vignarajah eliminated “exceptional clearances” (cases cleared because the main suspect was killed) and cases from previous years to get at what he considers an actual clearance rate, one that attributes arrests to the year the homicides occurred.

In his look at data from 2017 through 2019, Vignarajah found 1,001 homicides during those three years. Police made arrests in only 248 of them, or about 24%.

That’s not good. That means too many killers, close to eight out of 10, were available to kill again. And it means suspects in just one quarter of city homicides were available for prosecution.

That gets us to the second set of numbers Vignarajah sent me: The number and disposition of homicide cases that get to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.

Keep in mind that Vignarajah wanted to head that office; he was a Democratic primary challenger of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2018. When he ran for mayor in 2020, he boldly pledged, if elected, to get the annual homicide count below 200 or not seek reelection. He lost both primaries but remains committed to the issue of violence in the city; he’s become a watchdog of the practices of police and prosecutors.

Here’s what Vignarajah learned by examining homicide cases from 2017 through 2019:

Of the 248 homicide cases that police made during that period, 130 ended with convictions, either at trials or by guilty pleas. Some of the rest were listed as “pending,” some were dropped by prosecutors, and some ended with acquittals or had other dispositions, such as a transfer to federal prosecution.

So that’s about a 13% conviction rate out of all the homicides (1,001) that occurred in those three years.

If we just look at cases that actually went to court for trial, the conviction rate, based on Vignarajah’s data, was about 78%.

Mosby last year released 10 years of prosecutorial results going back through the time of two of her predecessors. The numbers her office provided for 2017-2019 were different from Vignarajah’s, with the prosecutor’s office reporting 227 guilty verdicts, in trials or plea bargains, and an 83% conviction rate.

The difference, Vignarajah says, has to do with methodology. He listed dispositions only of homicides that occurred in the three years he studied. Mosby’s office reported convictions from homicides that were likely committed in previous years but resolved in 2017-2019.

Either way, you see the issue: too few cases getting to court. That’s Vignarajah’s point. Mosby’s data shows that her staff handled a total of 328 homicide cases in 2017, 2018 and 2019. That’s just a third of the homicides that occurred during that period. (Baltimore has had 300-plus homicides each of the last six years and, given the pace of 2021, we could be in for another one.)

“We’re not solving enough murders,” Vignarajah says. “We’re not taking enough cases to trial. We’re not securing enough convictions. Families deserve justice in a courtroom, not on a street corner.”

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