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.