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May 26, 2010

Suspected gang member escapes harsh penalties

The 2007 gang law passed by the General Assembly was supposed to give cops and prosecutors a new tool to end the growing gang problem in Baltimore and beyond. But prosecutors complained that it was so watered down and convoluted it was next to impossible to use.

The numbers over the past three years show this to be true. Only a handful of prosecutors in Maryland have charged anyone and convictions are few -- a guilty plea in Montgomery County, used a leverage to get a plea deal on a lesser charge in Prince Georges County, and only twice used in the city.

One case is pending and the other ended on Tuesday with a familiar tale: a key witness recanted, bringing a jury trial to abrupt halt and prosecutors were forced to offer the 19-year-old associate of Mara Salvatruch, or MS-13, a deal to plead guilty to assault in exchange for a suspended setence and probation.

Had Jose Miguel Hernandez been convicted under the gang statute and of attempted murder in the stabbing of a rival gang member on Pratt Street near the Inner Harbor last year, he could've been put away for life plus 10 years in prison. Instead, he goes home to Rockville to home detention.

Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock gave him the familiar warning: "Take advantage of this." Hernandez assured her that he would.

Here's the kicker to this story: Hernandez's lawyer was none other than Luiz R.S. Simmons, a member of the House of Delegates and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which crafted the very gang law he was defending against in Baltimore Circuit Court. This is the very committee routinely criticized for being over-staffed with defense attorneys accused of molding crime bills to benefit defendants.

Simmons voted for the bill but complained language was overly broad. He feared, as many have, that the law makes mere association in a gang a crime and that anyone can be linked to a gang simply by the way they dress or talk.

It's always humbling for anyone who sits on a lofty perch to get real life expierence. For Simmons, it came before testimony even began, with the polling of potential jurors. The judge asked each if they thought being in a gang was a crime. More than half said yes.

Simmons said that underscored the fear people feel. He said he wants tough gang legislation, just not what is on the books. Even an enhancement passed this year -- one that he supported -- doesn't make the law much better, Simmons told me.

In court, Simmons argued that Hernandez was part of a "political trial" of gangs that went beyond whether he stabbed somone or not. In an interview, he told me he supported revising the gant statute to make it harsher and fairer.

What's on the books now has prosecutors frustrated and impotent.

Posted by Peter Hermann at 7:56 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Confronting crime, Courts and the justice system, Downtown, Gangs


The print story today quotes Judge Murdock as telling Mr. Hernandez, "You only get one chance--one more chance," as she suspended all but eight months already served of a ten-year sentence.

I would be glad to know what Judge Murdock will do when Mr. Hernandez blows his remaining chance. If he fails to enroll in GED class, or drops out of gang renunciation training, or takes off his monitor and skips, but is not accused of a new crime, will she hit him with the remaining nine years, or any part of it?

If he is convicted of a new offense, will this be good enough for the judge to impose the balance of the suspended sentence? Even so, in keeping with standard City Circuit Court practice, I expect it would run concurrently with the new sentence for the new crime--essentially, two crimes for the price of one.

Which will all be very good for Mr. Hernandez, the judges, and the lawyers, but fresh tears for victims past and future. Judge Murdock seems to think that her main obligation is to the convicted offender. I wonder when she and the other judicial impersonators in our city are going to awaken to their obligation to protect us.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

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