Before the names Pitcairn and Hill became widely known in Baltimore, this year’s race for state’s attorney looked like another win for the incumbent, Patricia C. Jessamy.
She’s had the job for 15 years, a point her opponent, Gregg Bernstein, makes frequently as they battle in the Democratic primary election. But she also has a strong base of support and seemed likely to prevail again.
But after a Johns Hopkins University researcher, Stephen Pitcairn, was robbed and stabbed to death outside his Charles Village home, the race became a race.
Bernstein said: “If the state’s attorney had done her job, a job she has had for 15 years, Stephen Pitcairn might be alive today.”
It was, at least, a debatable statement. The alleged assailants might have been imprisoned at several points along the way.
Mrs. Jessamy’s response: Shame on you, Greg Bernstein, for politicizing this tragedy.
Over the next week, there were six more murders. One of them, Milton Hill, 70, was shot near The Ark Church on East North Avenue where he was the volunteer caretaker. Some 500 people attended a prayer service in his memory. A similar service was held a few days earlier for Stephen Pitcairn.
‘A cycle of violence’
If Baltimore had grown numb to the carnage, the feeling was coming back. Elected leaders appeared at both ceremonies.
Mrs. Jessamy says she wanted to avoid further pain for the Pitcairn family, but electoral politics could hardly have been avoided. Indeed, it should be welcomed.
Dealing with issues in such circumstances sometimes compels a focus that leads to change. It’s a kind of hyper- accountability.
Thus, Bernstein’s insistence that Baltimore needs a new prosecutor gains traction in the killing streets. Mrs. Jessamy, he says, indulges in the blame game, pointing at the police or the courts when cases are lost or when probationers rend the fabric of life seemingly at will.
There are innumerable numbing agents: witnesses who won’t testify, so fearful are they of retaliation or so deeply imbedded are they in the criminal culture. Following the law as they should, judges sometimes look “soft on crime.” People shake their heads.
Mrs. Jessamy denies the Bernstein charge.
“The people who committed these horrible crimes are to blame,” she says.
And, yet, she does not shy away from one major accusation, a daring, truth-telling one, actually:
“There is a cycle of violence that is entrenched in some of our neighborhoods,” she says. She and her assistants deal with toxic neighborhoods every day.
“I have prosecutors who fight to have juveniles go to jail and stay in jail because jail is safer than the communities they live in. It’s a horrible indictment of our way of life,” she says, “but sometimes jail is safer.”
She has joined forces with Baltimore churches, including the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Parks and People Foundation, Wombworks Productions (empowering families through art) and others to begin what they call a “violence to virtues” attack on the root causes of crime. If fundamental change does not occur, she says, one set of random killers will be replaced by another.
Echoing a charge she has heard, she says: “They can call me a social worker. They can call me a lot of things. I’m strong. I’m smart. And I’m committed to making a difference.”
Candidate Bernstein says communities would be safer if the state’s attorney’s office worked more efficiently at its primary job: convicting the worst of the violent offenders, finding ways to enforce the restrictions of probation – and arguing more forcefully for jail time when probation is violated.
Baltimore may need prosecutorial leadership that combines the inside-out virtues and values approach Mrs. Jessamy is pursuing and the more strategic offender-targeting that Bernstein offers.
The challenger says the incumbent has failed to convict accused murderers at an acceptable rate. He says the number is 37 percent. She says it’s been 67 percent or higher for the last few years — and, in fact, the raw numbers suggest a substantial decline in the number of those killed on city streets,
In this election, though, the numbers may not matter. It’s the names — Stephen Pitcairn and Milton Hill — that may count most.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. He is the author of “William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” The Johns Hopkins University Press. His column runs Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail is email@example.com.