Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Another Baltimore Injustice

Another Baltimore Injustice
A protest in Baltimore last spring after the death of Freddie Gray.

NOVEMBER 28, 2015

Baltimore — THE trials of the six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody, begin tomorrow. As a public defender here, I have watched the cases of the officers move through the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

These cases are remarkable in that police officers were actually charged in Mr. Gray’s killing, unlike in other recent cases of police violence. But they are also notable in another, less laudable, way.

The court has given extraordinary treatment to the accused officers, from their arrests up to their impending trials. But thousands of other defendants in Baltimore receive an inferior brand of justice.

The exceptions started with the officers’ arrests. With the cooperation of the state’s attorney’s office and the police department, the officers were given the opportunity to turn themselves in. When my clients, who are poor and predominantly African-American men, are charged with serious offenses, they are snatched off the street.
The officers also arranged a Friday afternoon surrender. That’s important because they were able to post their bail before seeing the judge on Monday. Those who don’t have the benefit of this strategic luxury are often held in jail because they can’t get the money together in time.

At $250,000 to $350,000, the officers’ bails were also disproportionately low, compared with most other cases. Almost any other defendant charged with homicide would have been held without bail. A protester charged with much less serious offenses, including disorderly conduct and malicious destruction of property during the unrest following Mr. Gray’s death, received a $500,000 bail.

A client of mine, locked up for being near unruly protesters during the unrest, was saddled with a $250,000 bail. Those bails are completely inappropriate for such cases. After my client, unable to afford bond, sat in jail for a month, his case was dropped.
Unattainable bails change lives. People lose jobs. Families break apart. Bail also affects the quality of legal representation, and being held in jail can make people plead guilty when they shouldn’t, just to get out.

Not only are the Freddie Gray officers out on bail, but the court has also arranged for their cases to go to trial faster than nearly any other in the system. The first trial will take place six months after the indictment. This is unheard-of. I recently represented a client for a murder charge who sat in jail for over a year only to have his case dismissed.

Few defendants in the overburdened Circuit Court have a guaranteed trial date, even those waiting in jail. But because the Freddie Gray officers have received preferential treatment, in that they have been specially assigned a judge, their court dates hold true.
They also have had the advantage of resolving crucial legal matters ahead of the trial, like evidentiary rulings, venue and jury sequestration. (The judge decided against the sequestration, but ruled that the jury would remain anonymous.) Most defendants are forced to argue pretrial motions on the day of trial.

In another highly unusual move, the officers were excused from appearing for these pretrial motions, while lawyers argued in their defendants’ absence. This courtesy is not extended to the average defendant.

In fact, a judge recently issued an arrest warrant for a client of mine who did not appear for his arraignment, a proceeding in Circuit Court that has become a mere formality. He had never been given notice of the hearing, but the judge would not excuse his absence.

Is this case the most important Baltimore has seen in recent decades? Absolutely. Is it drawing tremendous media attention? Sure.

But there are other cases on the docket involving other people’s lives. Other accused individuals sit in jail eagerly awaiting their day in court.

Because of increased “security measures,” the public has faced long lines and delays to get into the courthouses.

On the officers’ trial dates, the court will be likely to reserve a large jury panel to choose from, while other defendants must compete for those left over.

The irony is that a lack of fairness in the criminal justice system is part of what Baltimore’s unrest is about. All cases affect our community, not just those featured on CNN. Either we should treat everyone like the officers (justly) or treat the officers like everyone else (unjustly).

Everyone should be afforded the same protections offered to the Freddie Gray officers. 

All cases should proceed like theirs. But they don’t.

Todd Oppenheim is a public defender and candidate for judge in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. 

© 2015 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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