The Jury Is Out
In state’s attorney race, Jessamy stands on a troubled record while Bernstein runs on reform and limited experience
Published: September 1, 2010
Standing on 26th Street between Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue at 3 p.m. on July 27, Gregg Bernstein told reporters that the murder of Stephen Pitcairn, the Johns Hopkins University researcher stabbed two blocks away two nights earlier, “was not just senseless—it was preventable.”
Three weeks into his surprise campaign for Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Bernstein focused on the arrest record of John Alexander Wagner, the main suspect in Pitcairn’s murder. Wagner had been arrested in April for a gas station robbery. Current State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy’s office dropped the charges after a witness declined to testify. Margaret Burns, Jessamy’s ubiquitous spokeswoman, summed it up: “No victim, no case.”
Wagner was convicted in 2008 for assault and sentenced to eight years, but the prison time was suspended and he was placed on probation. He violated that probation at least four times, according to court records. Each time he was allowed to remain free. He was facing a warrant for arrest after a 2009 car theft conviction when he and his wife allegedly mugged and killed Pitcairn as he walked to his Charles Village home from Penn Station.
“Wagner had been allowed to walk out of the courtroom without being convicted,” Bernstein said, reading from prepared notes. Jessamy, he said, “fails to fight for and obtain convictions.”
In an ordinary city, a political handicapper would give Bernstein the edge in the Sept. 14 State’s Attorney primary. He has raised more than $200,000, according to campaign finance reports—five times as much as Jessamy. He also has the backing of Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld. And Bernstein is a well-respected former federal prosecutor, born in Baltimore, with a background as a trial attorney.
But Baltimore is not an ordinary city. Along with one of the highest murder rates of any U.S. jurisdiction, Baltimore has a culture of political dynasties and a deep distrust of the police department in many communities.
During an Aug. 24 debate in Canton, Bernstein hammered Jessamy’s record of acrimonious relations with the police. Jessamy, who had brought along an entourage of supporters from her 400-person office, smiled beatifically throughout the assault. It was as if Jessamy knows Bernstein, like her other Democratic opponent Sheryl A. Lansey, is a long shot.
Jessamy inherited her office in 1995 from her predecessor, Stuart Simms, who in turn had taken over for Kurt Schmoke when he became mayor in 1987 after five years as state’s attorney. Jessamy is thus part of an unbroken, three-decade dynasty of state’s attorneys whose vision of the office incorporated the best of progressive thought from the 1970s and ‘80s. Jessamy calls it her “three-pronged approach,” with prevention as the first tine, “treatment/early intervention” as the second, and law enforcement as the final prong.
“If you’re not talking prevention, if you’re not talking early intervention, you have a problem,” Jessamy told a group of supporters at her annual birthday bash and fundraiser at the Baltimore Rowing Club on July 25. “We have diversion programs, we have drug treatment, we have mediation, we have programs because we believe in rehabilitation, we believe in recovery, we believe in redemption, we believe in re-entry—because we believe in a community that works for all the people.”
Pitcairn was stabbed a few hours after that $62-per-ticket party ended. (Jessamy was unavailable for comment before deadline.)
Bernstein says the Pitcairn case was one of many he could have spoken about, part of a pattern by Jessamy’s office of allowing dangerous offenders to walk the streets, despite many arrests and convictions. He does not say that Jessamy is distracted by her prevention and intervention programs, but he suggests that he will not be.
“It is not my role to participate in drug treatment programs,” Bernstein says during an interview in his Roland Park living room. “I am not about locking everybody up. I’m not about zero-tolerance policing—that’s a failed policy that created a lot of mistrust in the community—but my limited role as a prosecutor would be to exercise discretion in cases where a drug user gets arrested . . . and provide them the opportunity to get drug treatment if it’s available.”
While campaigning, Bernstein talks about unprepared prosecutors who fail to coach police officers. He talks about case presentation, and says he would bring in some of the city’s best defense lawyers to coach the office’s 200 or so prosecutors on how to conduct an effective cross examination, and how to introduce documents into evidence. “Right now they start in juvenile or district court, where they pick up bad habits,” he says. Better conviction rates come from better craft, Bernstein suggests.
While Bernstein says skilled lawyering would make the difference, Jessamy attacks him for being a defense attorney and suggests he lacks the management skills needed for the job. Bernstein has been a defense lawyer for many more years than he was a prosecutor, and he is highly skilled, having beaten former Maryland Sen. Larry Young’s corruption charges. He currently represents state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s County), who is also under investigation for corruption. But while Bernstein mocks Jessamy for “not having tried a case in more than 15 years,” he seems to have spent little time on criminal cases in the city. A check of Baltimore City Circuit Court records finds only three cases in which Bernstein served as defense counsel since 2005. Bernstein does not dispute his scant recent criminal-court record in Baltimore, but adds, “I’m an experienced trial lawyer. I’ve tried cases in federal and state court. It’s a necessary qualification to be an effective state’s attorney.”
After his four-year stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (1987-1991), he formed a law partnership with several colleagues. The firm lasted from about 1993 to 2004, he says, and was “dissolved amicably” for “economic reasons.” This was no disaster—small law firms fold up or merge all the time, and Bernstein says the lawyers and support staff all landed jobs. But he acknowledges that this experience, although it “certainly afforded me some skills that will help me,” has not necessarily prepared him to run a 400-person office. He pledges to audit the office’s $30 million annual budget and make changes from the ground up. “Part of being a leader is making sure you’re surrounded with good help, administratively,” Bernstein says.
Jessamy’s management track record is hardly stellar, and she has shown a preference for image over substance. Her office’s twice-annual reports are full of sunny messages that sometimes don’t hold water. Consider her Spring 2004 pamphlet, which touts “Operation Safe Neighborhoods,” a then-five-year-old program that endeavored to identify each neighborhood’s major troublemakers and call them in for a chat:
These individuals, along with the service providers, law enforcement personnel, and community and faith-based leaders, convene at a “Sit Down” meeting where the message of compassionate intolerance is delivered. Simply stated, individuals have the opportunity to take advantage of services to address needs, and are also put on notice that if they commit further crimes, they will be subject to vigorous prosecution. It is a choice. . . .
In fact, the program was moribund at the time, and had been repeatedly revived and allowed to falter several times already. Last revived with a hasty (and inaccurate) press release in 2006, today Operation Safe Neighborhoods is but a dim memory.
Jessamy’s management lapses are even more starkly illustrated by the War Room. Begun in 2003, the War Room was tasked with keeping track of violent repeat offenders and making sure they did not receive bail when they were arrested for new crimes. But the War Room’s leader, then-Assistant State’s Attorney Page Croyder, consistently complained about lack of resources and commitment on Jessamy’s part to see this mission through. Croyder’s detailed annual reports were bowdlerized, she says (“Room for Improvement,” Mobtown Beat, July 14), while Burns issued press releases touting the program’s success.
Croyder retired and conducted a study of her old shop, finding that conviction rates were no better than the agency’s average—about 35 percent. Even when convicted, the violent people targeted for War Room attention were not much more likely to see their probations revoked, and even if they were, they were not likely to have to serve more time in prison than they had been sentenced to for the prior crime.
“The War Room . . . has had no appreciable impact upon convictions for violent offenders or upon the results of probation and parole violation hearings,” Croyder’s June 21 online report, “A Study of War Room Offenders,” says.
Jessamy declined to respond to the report when it was released in June. Bernstein has used the report’s numbers to criticize Jessamy’s conviction rate. “The War Room does not have a conviction rate,” Jessamy countered at the Canton debate, reminding Bernstein that the program was all about bail review.
Both the War Room and Safe Neighborhoods shared an interest in targeting individual criminals known to be violent. Criminologists who have studied Baltimore have concluded that just a few thousand hardcore criminals cause much of the city’s mayhem, and Jessamy says she has targeted them—and locked up “thousands” of them. Yet violent crime continues to strike with stunning regularity.
This fact, along with her insistence that she doesn’t know why Bealefeld came out against her during the campaign, shows that Jessamy is out of touch with reality, Bernstein says. But Bernstein’s reality may be different from Baltimore’s.
In a city where large swaths of the population see the police as the enemy, Jessamy’s attack-the-police-and-treat-the-offenders philosophy resonates. “My opponent wants to leave out the community,” Jessamy told the Canton crowd.
Bernstein’s “pro-prosecution,” pro-police message likely resonates most with voters in Canton, Federal Hill, Pigtown, and other neighborhoods where house prices (and mortgages) have increased even while street crime—prostitution, petty drug dealing, assaults, and vandalism—have continued apace. They mostly trust the police. They don’t understand why their city has to be lawless.
In Canton, during the debate, these folks made up the majority of the audience. After they whooped it up on behalf of Bernstein final remarks, Jessamy stepped to the microphone, smiled coolly, and thanked them for their applause.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.