One week ahead of the community meeting scheduled following the murder of Highlandtown resident Kimberly Leto, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein visited the Fell’s Prospect Community Association.
Next Wednesday, March 19, 7 p.m., at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, 2638 E. Baltimore St., Bernstein will engage the larger Southeast community, along with Sam Abed, secretary of juvenile services.
Last Wednesday, Bernstein touted progress he says his office has made, and laid out some of his plans moving forward for the next four years. He is up for reelection on June 24.
Police and prosecutors
Regarding accomplishments, Bernstein said that before he took office, he perceived a “dysfunctional relationship between police and prosecutors.” He has improved the situation, he said, by instituting a “community prosecution model.” Bernstein said that his office dismantled the existing prosecution units, which were focused on certain types of crimes, such as drugs, homicide, or sexual crimes for example. Instead, he has organized units geographically, so each individual prosecutor handles a range of cases in the same area.
“It gets them closer to the community,” said Bernstein. “They know the street names; it also puts them closer to detectives and officers.”
According to Bernstein, prosecutors meet monthly with their “police department counterparts” in their districts.
“We had a great meeting today, in fact, about the Southeast,” he said.
Bernstein cited violent crime as both an area of accomplishment for his office and a focus area for the future.
“I feel our strongest focus has to be on violent crime,” he said, emphasizing the importance of public safety.
“If the government’s not providing that, nothing else can flow from it,” Bernstein said.
The State’s Attorney touted his role in creating a major investigations unit within his office, which he said collects evidence using tools such as grand juries, informants and wiretaps, and “builds cases in a historical way against these violent repeat offenders.”
He said that using this “whole new paradigm,” his office has convicted “well over 200 of these VROs.”
“We think that’s really really good,” said Bernstein.
He cited the prosecution of Robert Moore, who with his codefendants received six consecutive life sentences for a series of “retaliatory killings” that occurred over a five- to six-year period.
Pre-empting a question from the audience, Bernstein asked himself, “If you’re doing such a great job, why is the homicide rate so high…What’s going on?”
“It points to the need of everyone to be on the same page,” he said. “You need all your partners—all your stakeholders, so to speak—involved in this.”
Moving on to statistics, Bernstein said that his office prosecutes 50,000 misdemeanors and 7,000 felonies per year. He said that since 2010, convictions have been up 5 percent, and that 500 more “serious felonies” have been prosecuted in years past, starting in 2011.
Minimum mandatory sentencing
“It’s an interesting dynamic when you think about the criminal justice system,” said Bernstein, noting all the parties involved, including defendants, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.
A resident, noting what she perceives as lenient sentencing, said that she “about fell out of my chair” when Bernstein referenced the six consecutive life sentences obtained in the Robert Moore case.
Bernstein noted that the offenses in that case were particularly egregious. He said that while it falls on judges to decide on sentencing, prosecutors can help the process by seeking mandatory minimum sentences for lower level cases.
A resident asked Bernstein whether Allen Pinkney and Alonzo Gorham Ramos—the two juveniles charged with killing Leto—would remain charged as adults.
“There will be some litigation as to whether it stays in the adult system or goes to the juvenile system,” Bernstein said. “My view is that there is a group of juveniles…because of their socio-economic background, because of the way they were brought up, because of what happened to them—they’re just dangerous. For me, it becomes a public safety issue.”
Fell’s Prospect Community Association President Victor Corbin noted that he had been a witness for a criminal case last summer.
“To be one can be incredibly annoying,” he commented, adding that he understands the defense strategy of “postpone, postpone, postpone,” to wear down witnesses until they don’t show up.
Corbin said that his case was postponed multiple times, until he was put “basically on call,” and was eventually told to be at the courthouse within an hour.
Throughout all this, Corbin said he had been making calls to the State’s Attorney’s office for updates to his case, and “they would put me on hold or say someone would call me back, and it got really annoying.”
Corbin asked Bernstein if the process could be put online, and a witness could view the status of his case with an identification number.
Bernstein acknowledged that the the system needs to be improved for witnesses, but he said that the idea of full automation was “interesting but complicated.”
by Erik Zygmont