Murder by Numbers
David Simon’s murder blog checks out;Bernstein says ‘So what?’
Published: August 15, 2012
By the end of 2011, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office had charged only two-thirds the number of homicide cases than its predecessor did the year previous. But the meaning of this statistic is disputed.
In June, David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter-turned-HBO auteur, posted a blog, titled “Dirt Under the Rug,” excoriating State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein and police brass for changing the way murder cases are charged (“Simon Vs. Bernstein,” Mobtown Beat, June 27). Since mid-2011, Simon wrote, detectives need explicit permission from prosecutors before making a homicide arrest. In the past, cops could act on their own—though, as a practical matter, they seldom did.
The change (which Bernstein and the police deny ever happened) means fewer—and more winnable—cases for Bernstein’s prosecutors, but it also means fewer murderers are being arrested, Simon wrote: “Left alone to shape his own statistics, Baltimore’s State’s Attorney—instead of being more aggressive against violent criminals—is now, on the charge of murder, at least, the least aggressive in modern history.”
As a result, Simon wrote, only 70 of 2011’s 198 murder cases had been closed by arrest—compared to 130 of 223 from 2010 and 150 of 240 from 2009.
The response to Simon’s charge from the State’s Attorney’s office was silence, then denial.
“There is no new policy,” Mark Cheshire, spokesperson for State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein, said on July 3. “For more than a decade, police and prosecutors have worked together to determine whether a homicide case should be charged. What is new is an unprecedented level of cooperation between police and prosecutors in our pursuit of individuals who commit violence against others.”
Police spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi stayed on message. “The end-game result is still putting people in jail,” he said. “On the most part, on the line level—even between prosecutors and detectives, I see a lot of cooperation.”
On July 5, Cheshire e-mailed statistics that seemed to show no change in the number of murder cases the office handled—or the conviction rate. Where Simon said just 70 murder cases had been charged in 2011, Cheshire said 144 murder and manslaughter dispositions had been obtained that year.
But Cheshire’s figures were not comparable to Simon’s. Dispositions are convictions, acquittals, plea deals. They come at the end of the judicial process, often several years after the crime took place.
Arrests usually happen much earlier. Under the old policy, Simon argued, cops could arrest suspects even if prosecutors weren’t sure the case was ironclad. The slowdown in arrests means fewer cases will be disposed of—while more killers will be left on the street, Simon charged.
“The policy has never changed,” Bernstein reiterated after the July 11 meeting of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. He said the actual number of charged cases is “more than Simon says, number one. Number two, that’s the wrong analysis.”
The important number isn’t the number of suspects charged with murder in a given year, Bernstein said. The important number is the number of open cases—cases on which detectives are still gathering evidence. “Then what you do,” Bernstein said, is “drill down and look at the open cases. How many have known suspects? How many are those with known suspects, with [strong] evidence, with an eyewitness? It is wrong-headed to just look at the raw number of individuals who are charged in a given year.”
As a matter of law and policy, the State’s Attorney does not share the contents of open murder case files. A subsequent meeting with Cheshire and Deputy State’s Attorney Elizabeth Embry shed little additional light. They pointed out that counting arrests by the year the murder took place will always leave the most recent year’s cases looking thin, since cases always take time to develop. The pair repeated that no new policy had been promulgated.
On July 20, Cheshire sent City Paper a spreadsheet with the last two and a half years of murder cases. According to that sheet (and accounting for the time lag between Simon’s blog post and the data release), Simon’s figures (which he says come from police sources) are accurate.
According to the spreadsheet, 119 suspects were indicted for murder or manslaughter during the 2010 calendar year, 87 of whom were charged with killings that had happened during that year. There were 223 homicides in the city in 2010.
According to the spreadsheet, Bernstein’s office indicted 80 people on homicide charges in 2011, only 60 of whom were charged with murders committed during that year. There were 198 murders in Baltimore during 2011.
In sum, the number of killings went down by 11 percent, but the number of indictments for killings decreased 33 percent (31 percent, if only those murders committed during the calendar year are counted).
A count of 2009 homicide indictments obtained by City Paper shows that prosecutors charged 151 defendants with murder that year, 93 of whom were indicted for homicides committed during 2009. There were 240 murders in Baltimore that year.
According to this detailed count, the drop in murder indictments from 2009, the last full year under former State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy, to 2011, the first full year under Bernstein, was 47 percent, while the decrease in actual murders was 18 percent. (It should be noted that the detailed count, obtained from former Jessamy spokesperson Margaret Burns, does not agree with a bar chart Cheshire handed out in July, which claims 140 defendants charged with murder in 2009.)
Bernstein’s prosecutors and city police may be working more carefully than ever to solve murders, but they are also working more slowly. Time will tell if this strategy (new or not) results in a safer city.
Reached via e-mail, Simon ripped apart Bernstein’s explanation of the murder stats.
“So let’s get this straight,” he writes. “First, Mr. Bernstein says my stats aren’t accurate. Then, when they prove to be accurate, he changes up and says my stats don’t matter. What, I have to ask, is Mr. Bernstein going to say tomorrow?”
Simon maintains that the State’s Attorney is guided more by public perception than a desire to convict criminals.
“It’s my argument that this change has occurred because Mr. Bernstein is consumed by matters of public image,” he writes. “That, by avoiding the tough cases, he’s massaging his statistics and trying to avoid any instance in which he might lose a high-profile jury trial. Tellingly, his office’s first response to that argument is to do precisely the same thing—to cheat statistics, to misrepresent the casework grossly and falsely imply that there has been no significant change in the rate at which homicide defendants are being charged. And when City Paper discovers the inherent dishonesty in that approach, revealing that the statistics I cited were accurate, Mr. Bernstein then responds by suggesting that a fifty-percent decline in the number of cases charged in a single year simply doesn’t matter.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.