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J. Wyndal Gordon (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Adjunct law professor sues prosecutor’s office

An adjunct law professor has sued the Baltimore city prosecutor’s office, alleging it has a policy of “race-based selective prosecutions violating the rights of African American victims.”

Byron Franklin, who is black, and a white neighbor in his Baltimore apartment building pressed charges against each other stemming from an October altercation outside Franklin’s door. But Franklin alleges prosecutors dismissed charges against the neighbor in December while continuing to prosecute Franklin until charges were dropped during a hearing in April.

Franklin’s lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Baltimore City Circuit Court, cites three other cases in which black and white defendants have accused each other of assault, and in which the white defendants’ charges were reduced or dropped.

“There’s a big problem when decisions are made based on no other reasons that can be gleaned other than a person’s race,” said J. Wyndal Gordon, Franklin’s lawyer, who has long been critical of Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for Bernstein, denied Gordon’s accusation in an emailed statement, saying decisions are made in each case only “on the facts and the law.” The state’s attorney’s office handles almost 50,000 misdemeanor cases in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City, he added.

“We take each one seriously, and take a close look at the facts alleged, the available evidence and the elements of the crimes in question, to determine whether we can and should proceed,” Cheshire said.

Gordon, a Baltimore solo practitioner, has been critical of Bernstein since Bernstein became the city’s top prosecutor in January 2011. That month, Gordon wrote an online column declaring Bernstein “overwhelmingly inept” in his first weeks in office, and calling on him “not to prosecute ‘black crime’ but all crime.”

At the time, Gordon was representing a black teenager who had been assaulted in November 2010 by Eliyahu Werdesheim, a white, Jewish member of a citizens’ patrol. Werdesheim was facing felony charges before Bernstein took office, but prosecutors in January 2011 reduced the charges to misdemeanors and Werdesheim eventually received a suspended sentence and probation. The case is one of the three Gordon references in Franklin’s lawsuit,

In February 2014, Gordon gave $1,000 to Russell A. Neverdon Sr., who is running as an independent in November’s general election for city state’s attorney, according to state campaign finance records. Neverdon will face the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary between Bernstein and Marilyn Mosby.

Gordon said politics played no role in the timing of the lawsuit, adding he filed it as soon as he completed all of his necessary research.

“I don’t think the case has anything to do with the election,” he said. “This case is about getting justice for the law professor. It’s not about J. Wyndal or his political beliefs.”

Franklin, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and Coppin State University, teaches classes on race and law at both institutions.

He was playing music in his apartment on Oct. 25 when Matthew Clagett “started ferociously banging” on a shared wall and called Franklin a racial slur, as he had done “intermittently for close to two years,” according to the lawsuit.

But unlike previous times, Clagett came to Franklin’s door and continued yelling racial slurs and also spit in Franklin’s face, Franklin alleges. Franklin pushed Clagett out of his doorway “in self -defense,” causing Clagett to fall on the floor, according to the lawsuit. Clagett got up and took a swing at Franklin before the altercation ended, according to the lawsuit.

“Mr. Clagett brought trouble to my client’s front door,” Gordon said.

Both men were charged with second-degree assault. Franklin alleges prosecutors dropped charges against Clagett on a pretrial motion without Franklin agreeing to the dismissal in violation of state criminal law. Franklin was not even notified of Clagett’s court hearing, while Franklin’s case was “relentlessly pursued for months,” according to the complaint.

“It is clear the charges against Clagett were dismissed … due to selective/discriminatory prosecution on account of racial bias,” the lawsuit states.

Cheshire said both Clagett and Franklin attended mediation “and reached an agreement,” in addition to both cases being dropped.

Gordon said prosecutors should have broad discretion in deciding which cases to pursue but that it should not be “unfettered.”

“What I see is a policy or pattern of this kind of case,” he said. “The alarm has been sounded and if nothing else, the prosecutor has to be sensitive to this issue.”

Franklin’s lawsuit also cites the second-degree assault charges against Nicholas Wallis, who is white, and Barrington Alston, who is black, stemming from a fight outside a house party in September. Wallis’ charges were dropped in District Court in February; Alston is scheduled to go to trial in circuit court in August, according to court records.

According to police charging documents, Alston was upset and “caused a scene” when he was not allowed in the party. He was with friends outside when the altercation began, and punched Wallis in the face as Wallis tried to help a friend who was being attacked.

According to Franklin’s complaint, however, Wallis and “a large number of gang members,” attacked a friend of Alston’s, who intervened to defend his friend.

The complaint does not explain how Franklin obtained that information and an attorney for Alston could not be reached.

Franklin’s case is Byron Franklin v. Office of Baltimore City State’s Attorney, et al., 24C14003749. He seeks up to $200,000 in compensatory damages plus punitive damages.