Child Abuse Defendant Railroaded into Plea by Outrageous Bail Ruling Maryland Criminal Attorneys have witnessed a troubling trend in Baltimore City pretrial bail rulings for criminal defendants over the past year or two. Both District Court and Circuit Judges have seemingly been locked in a competition with one another to out “tough” one another on bail rulings and the result has been a many fold increase in the bail amounts that has put the city way out of the mainstream on this issue. I’m not just referring to defendants who are charged with murder or rape or defendants with long and violent criminal records. I’m talking about first offenders in misdemeanor cases or garden variety felony cases such as burglary or parental discipline type physical child abuse cases (this was known as a spanking when I was a kid) being held without bail or on bails set so high that they are the functional equivalent of no bail.

Every day in Baltimore City courts, defendants who would be released on their own recognizance or on five or ten thousand dollar bails in any other jurisdiction in the State are held on six figure bails or on my personal favorite, “cash only by defendant only” bails that no virtually no defendant can make. It is clear to many of us in the legal community that the judges who set these particular bails are not anywhere near as interested in fulfilling the stated purposes of the bail statute which is to “ensure that the defendant will not flee or pose a danger to another person or the community” as they are in punishing the hated bail bond industry.

I actually had a conversation with a District Court judge about this issue recently in a bail review hearing in which I tried to point out to the judge that if the person actually were able to make the cash only bail, was released and then failed to appear in court, that there would be no one with an incentive to go out and find him and bring him in. In other words the cash only bail defeats the very purpose of the statute. The judge responded with a dismissive wave of her hand and stated that she “didn’t care about that”. I was literally speechless.

These bail rulings routinely cause defendants whom everyone knows will never be convicted or even if they are convicted will never serve a day in jail on the conviction, to remain incarcerated for weeks or months waiting for the opportunity to exonerate themselves at trial or plead guilty for probation. I may be old fashioned but I still believe that except in extreme cases the government ought not deprive a citizen of his liberty without first proving that he has violated the law.

But perhaps the most insidious consequence of these bail rulings is that defendants very often choose to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit because the State’s Attorney or the Judge will offer them a sentence of the time they have already served and probation to do so. Defendants in Baltimore City routinely accept these offers because they know that the Circuit Court Docket is so backlogged that it will take 6 months or even a year before they will be able have their day in court. Most people in this situation would plead guilty to the Lindberg baby kidnapping rather than sit in the city jail for another year.

I had a case that amounted to a particularly vivid example of this common occurrence in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City just this week. Here are the facts:

I was hired by my client’s wife shortly after they were both charged with physical child abuse of his biological 14 year old daughter. She is 39, he is 36. Neither has any prior criminal record and both have consistent work histories and solid ties to the community. She has lived in Baltimore her entire life and he since he emigrated from Jamaica 15 years ago. (He became a US Citizen in 2002 about the same time that he brought the child in question here from Jamaica in the hopes of giving her a better life). The allegations of abuse came to light the day after the alleged incident when the child reported it at school. The police were called and responded to interview her. The officer noted in his report that the only visible injury was “slight bruising to her left cheek” and a “broken blood vessel in her left eye”.

The child claimed that she had been repeatedly punched and slapped by both of her parents, had been tied up with an electric razor cord and had her braids cut out by her father. She claimed that she had a “whole lot” of blood coming out of her nose and mouth and had let it drain in the tub. However, the officer noted that he had spoken to the girl’s grandmother who had arrived immediately after the incident and stated that she observed only a small amount of blood on the child’s mouth. The grandmother also stated that she went into the bathroom and did not observe an electric razor. There was no mention of blood in the bathtub.

My clients, had they ever been given a chance (I’ll explain later), would have told a much different version of the events. The short version is that ever since this child entered high school, her attitude has deteriorated markedly, certainly not an uncommon phenomenon. She had been getting in trouble in school, disobeying her parents, breaking her curfew and hanging out with the wrong crowd. She had also become depressed and had threatened to kill herself on more than one occasion. Her parents took the threat seriously enough that they had her undergo a psychiatric evaluation at Shepperd Pratt.

On the date of the incident she had once again blown her curfew and when she did come home she began cursing at her stepmother. The father came home and all three were yelling at one another. At one point the child said she was going to kill herself and jumped up on her bed, opened the window and a tried to jump out. Her father grabbed her to prevent her from doing so and they both fell to the floor. She then grabbed a screwdriver and threatened her father and struggle ensued over that. He eventually did cut her braids out as they had been a reward for good behavior some time ago. In other words, it was certainly an unfortunate and ugly situation but it was hardly the vicious and coordinated attack that was described by the child. In my view, my client’s version seems much more consistent with the minor nature of the injuries that she sustained than is her version.

The reason I wrote above that this is what my clients would have said had they been given the chance is that my clients were never interviewed by the police. They were never offered an opportunity to explain what happened. Instead the police officer simply accepted lock stock and barrel the fairly obviously exaggerated claims of a rebellious 14 year old. He was more a stenographer than a detective who simply wrote down word for word what a child said and based on her story, arrested both her parents without even asking their side of the story. Solid police work right? And it gets worse.

In spite of the very minor nature of the child’s injuries and the contradicting statement of the grandmother, both of my clients were charged with first degree and second degree child abuse and first and second degree assault. A typical overcharge by the Baltimore City Police – an issue I blog about regularly. Even if every word the child said was true there is absolutely no basis for either first degree charge but of course the court commissioner rubber stamped the charge when the detective presented it. The wife’s bail was set at $75,000. This is an extremely high bail for a 39 year old lifelong Baltimore resident with no prior criminal record. The husband was ordered to be held without bail by the court commissioner and this outrageous ruling was upheld by a District Court Judge who continued the no bail status. A 36 year old man with no record held without bail because his daughter had “slight bruising”? Anybody scared yet?

This ruling should send chills down the spine of any parent with teenage children who lives in Baltimore City. The objective facts are the she had only “slight” bruising and a broken blood vessel in her eye. The child’s story is wildly inconsistent with the minor nature of her injuries and directly contradicted by the grandmother’s observations of the “crime scene” immediately after the incident. And based on that we are going to hold a 36 year old man with no record of any kind without bail! In any other jurisdiction in the State, these people are released on a five or ten thousand dollar bails if not on their own recognizance. God help any of us who have children who may one day get angry with us and weave a fantastic tale to the police. I really don’t think I am being dramatic here. This could literally happen to anyone who lives in Charm City. And it gets worse.

I filed what is known as a Petition for Habeas Corpus on November 3 which is literally a demand to produce the body of the defendant in court but is effectively a request for a bail review. In most jurisdictions it takes only a matter of days to have a client brought into court to challenge his detention; not so in Baltimore City where it generally takes at least 3 weeks. In this case, in spite of multiple daily calls to pretrial services by my staff begging for the matter to be scheduled, it took a mind boggling 42 days to get my client before a Circuit Court judge to review his bail. And it gets worse.

My client appeared in the Circuit Court on December 14. Before I even had a chance to explain everything I have written above, the judge and I engaged in a surreal discussion about whether or not my client has a criminal record. The pretrial investigator advised the judge that there was no record of the defendant in this system. He told her that even the current case did not show up. Based on that last fact the judge concluded that his record was a “moot” issue not to be considered either way because, in her view, “we just don’t know whether he has a record”. When I inquired whether the court was drawing the inference from the fact that the current case was not in the record that my client did in fact have a record and using that against him, she claimed she was just not considering his record at all. She said ” I’m not saying he has a bad or a good record, we just don’t know so it is moot and I’m not considering his record at all”.

By doing this she was obviously, I pointed out, denying him the benefit of being considered as a first offender. She again insisted that it was a “moot” issue. It was clear that I was not going to convince her that it was unfair not to give my client the benefit of the doubt that she alone apparently had regarding his lack of record (even the State’s Attorney said he had found no record on my client) so I moved on. I argued that he was certainly not a flight risk given his strong ties to the community and that he was not a risk to the community or the child who had been put in foster care by DSS. I argued that he should therefore be afforded reasonable bail so he can get out and defend himself.

My final argument to her was that if she did not allow this man to be released on a reasonable bail (if not on recog) she would virtually guarantee that he would end up pleading guilty just to get out of jail at his arraignment the following day. The judge scoffed at this argument, opining that he would not be offered time served and then set his bail at a staggering One Million Dollars! It apparently wasn’t enough for this judge to continue to deny this first offender his liberty before he had ever been adjudicated guilty of anything. Instead, she decided she needed to rub salt in the wound by granting the request to set a bail and then setting it at an astronomically high amount that she knew he couldn’t make if he had a thousand years to raise the money. It was a shocking abuse of her authority and frankly it was just plain cruel. Indeed two attorneys have independently approached me and told me that they had witnessed this display and that they were disgusted by it. And it gets worse.

As I note above, the couple appeared in court for their arraignment the very next day. The State’s offer in the case was that both plead guilty to second degree child abuse and serve 18 months in jail followed by 4 years of probation. The guidelines in the case were probation to five years. The Assistant State’s Attorney to her great credit took the time to review documentation that the family brought to court and even spent 15 minutes or so speaking with the grandmother. She promised to conduct a thorough investigation and advised that her position may well soften after she had done so but that right now she could not lower the offer as she hadn’t even had the opportunity to interview the alleged victim. I disagreed with her position but understood and respected it.

The problem was, of course, that one of my clients would sit in jail while that investigation was conducted and would do so for at least six months if we chose to go to trial. We approached the bench and after a few minutes of discussion the judge offered to suspend all of the sentence other than the time that they had already served (2 days for her, 43 for him) and place them on probation for four years until the child reached the age of 18. Finally, my clients found a judge who would at least view the the case with some rationality. I advised the judge as well as my clients both on and off the record that it was my strong legal opinion that they would both be found not guilty if the case were to go to trial and that from a strictly legal standpoint I had to advise them to reject the offer.

However, as predicted, they both accepted the offer and plead guilty to committing a crime that they both vehemently deny committing so he could go home. They both explained to me that they have two other children at home (8 years old and 7 months old) and that they would lose everything including their home if he remained in jail for six more months. At this point I reluctantly qualified them for their pleas which were accepted by the court. The only silver lining is that the presiding judge indicated that he would be favorably inclined to grant probation before judgment so they can expunge their records if they successfully complete their probation which I am certain they will.

I really don’t know whether to feel good or bad about what I accomplished for them in court yesterday. I certainly got them what they wanted under the difficult circumstances that they found themselves in but I had also participated in one of the worst miscarriages of justice that I have seen in a very long time. Two people who had lived perfectly law abiding lives and who were only trying to prevent their daughter from going down the wrong road were basically blackmailed into pleading guilty by a series of outrageous bail rulings. They had simply no choice but to plead guilty and I would bet my last nickel than anyone of us would have done the exact same thing had we been in their position. It was a depressing but unfortunately not at all uncommon result in a city that has gone completely mad when it comes to setting bail. And it gets worse, one last time.

The judge ordered that the parents could have contact with the child only as directed by Department of Social Services. I think this was a reasonable condition of probation once they had plead guilty. Indeed, I don’t see what else the judge could have ordered at this point. The problem is that I had to advise my clients that they simply could not risk bringing this child back into their home. She had already falsely accused them once and now that they are on probation for child abuse, it would only take a phone call by that child and they would both be in jail on a violation of probation so fast that it would make their heads spin; and this time no one would believe them. After all, they are now both convicted felons. Nobody believes what a convicted felon has to say, especially one who commits their crimes against children. They advised me that they had basically already come to this conclusion on their own and intended to have the child sent back to Jamaica to live with her mother. So the final blow from this miscarriage of justice is that the child that my client had brought over from Jamaica to try to give her a better life will now be sent back because they just can’t take the risk of being treated again the way they were treated by the criminal justice system in the case. For the sake of their other children, they simply can’t afford to take the risk.

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