Friday, December 30, 2016

Top Ten Maryland Stories of 2016

There were a lot of holdovers from 2015 and the biggest players in the state, got bigger. The national political climate had little effect on local politicians. As a simple disclaimer you are welcome to disagree. In fact I encourage you to create your own list.

10. The loss of political power by women in Maryland. The Maryland Congressional Delegation has no women and there are no female County Executives. The top two women in the state are Nancy Kopp, the State Treasurer and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. What’s really a lost Sen. Barbara Milkulski is leaving the US Senate. Her feistiness enabled more women to enter politics and she was seen as the Dean of Women Politicians. It’s even worst on the GOP side. While Del. Kathy Szeliga (R) of Baltimore and Harford Counties challenged for the US Senate. She ended up losing. The bench on the Republican side isn’t deep. If there is a silver lining, women are becoming a larger share of the Maryland Electorate.

9.  Political Power Shift to Washington Suburbs. We saw this coming. The draining of population from Baltimore City and its overall influence on Maryland is waning. The interesting part is Baltimore is still the state’s economic engine. You can’t discount this. However, places like Montgomery County (the state’s wealthiest district) and Howard County are demanding more for their tax dollars. I would caution those who live around DC, be careful of flexing your political muscle.

8. Devastation of Ellicott City. We know how powerful water can be and its potential destruction. We saw on July 30, 2016 what the neglect of infrastructure can mean for a commercial district. I will not forget water pushing cars down Main Street and the number of human rescues. County Executive Alan Kittleman vowed to rebuild and has done it with the help of the state.

7. Rejecting Candidate Trump. Early on Governor Larry Hogan was a supporter of New Jersey Governor Christ Christie's run for President of the United States. When Governor Christie dropped out and endorsed Donald Trump, Governor Hogan did not follow suit. Maryland’s Governor also skipped the GOP Convention in Cleveland. What did Hogan gain? A 70 percent approval rating. Those numbers will be used to squash any Democratic challenger as he runs for a second term.

6. Chesapeake Bay – After years of doom and gloom the Bay got a report card that was encouraging. The crab population increase by 35 %. Bay grasses expanded by 21%. The numbers provided by Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) gave the movement to “save the bay” momentum. I watched as CBF moved its oyster recovery project to Baltimore City. The foundation was able to bring science to the conversation without being preachy.

5. Under Armour – Kevin Plank. Under Armour’s worldwide headquarters is based in Baltimore. With investment resources and a large staff the apparel maker solidified its position as a major economic player in the city. They doubled down in asking the cash strapped city for a 760 million dollars in tax abatements to take over an industrial area called Port Covington. Critics suggest the city gave away too much. The deal was modified to accommodate job training, infrastructure, and the state kicked in some additional money. It was the only train leaving the station and the city punch its ticket. 

4.    Transportation – This is tricky. The Beltways, the Interstates, and well-traveled roads are in need of repair. Philosophically, Gov. Larry Hogan decides what priorities to push. For years it was about public transit. For the people who elected the governor, they didn’t see the cost benefit in public transportation. New gas taxes provide money to make either one of these transportation ideas possible (the governor wanted to reduce the gas tax but couldn’t). At the beginning of the last legislative session the Governor laid out a plan to provide road construction money to rural areas and a conditionally green light to the Purple line in the Washington suburbs. He summarily rejected the Red line in Baltimore calling it a “boondoggle.” It angered the Baltimore delegation. The delegation help push through a scoring plan for all road projects. It passed without the governor’s signature (This year he’s made the repeal of the law his legislative priority). To squash the anger surrounding the rejection of the Red Line, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) says it was going to redesign bus lines for Baltimore.

3. Fallout from Freddie Gray – The six Baltimore Police Officers who were charged with Gray’s death dodged a bullet. Three were acquitted of charges and the remaining three officers had their cases dismissed. Weeks after the trial the US Justice Department who had been investigating the Baltimore Police Department released a devastating report detailing civil rights violations and a culture of indifference between the Police Department and Black communities they serve. What we await is a consent decree which will fix these problems.

2. Governor’s Race 2018 – Two years into his term, Governor Larry Hogan has solidified his political footing in the state. As the second Republican Governor in the modern era, he has confounded his critics and posted the best approval numbers (70%) of any governor. He has chided potential challengers (Kevin Kamenetz) and found an ally in Comptroller Peter Franchot. Being a Republican in a Democratic state has not boded well for second terms. If you ask me right now, Hogan is likely to win re-election.

1. Dysfunction in Annapolis – The rhetoric has ratcheted up with name calling from the Legislative branch to the Executive Branch. While the Governor sets the agenda, the Legislature sifts through the debris. The Appropriations Committees in both chambers has found money cut from the budget to fund additional educational funding which the governor has rejected. This year the Governor wanted something the legislature had control over, tax incentives. In return for giving Northrup Gruman/Marriott Hotels favorable tax relief, the Governor released more money to school districts. Sen. Mike Miller and Delegate Michael Bush are cautious and they would like to make sure Governor Larry Hogan doesn’t get a second term.

Person of the Year

P. Kenneth Burns

First I am mentor of P. Kenneth Burns. I have watched his career and know he is a solid a reporter at WYPR-FM. When I received word he was banned from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's briefing in a conference room, I was stunned. I asked, “Are we talking about P. Kenneth Burns?” Then I hear the reasons: “He appears threatening; he types loudly; and is rude.” Then I saw the video of the press conference in question. He presses the Mayor on asking for additional money to fund the Police Department and asked who was in control of the police force? She says, "we’ll get back to you later." We later learned the Police is controlled by the state and the city did ask for a supplemental budget to implement changes in the BPD, which he reported.

I’ve been through banning a reporter at the Annapolis State House. The resolution always makes the accuser look bad. I wrote in open letter to the Mayor (signed by my colleagues) asking her to rescind the order. I appeared on radio to talk about this injustice. I also asked for “better angels” to intercede to correct this wrong. Sadly, Mayor Rawlings-Blake charged the media with “circling the wagons” to protect Burns. Far from the truth. Truth is the only currency reporters have and we value it. There were no facts. Burns spent a two months away from the briefings. He returned with the swearing-in of Mayor Catherine Pugh.  

Burns didn’t stop reporting because of this incident and that for me makes him the perfect “Person of the Year.”

Thursday, June 16, 2016


(Baltimore, MD) If the case of the State of Maryland v. Officer Caesar Goodson, Jr. ends in an acquittal, the signs of problems were obvious in the beginning. The Prosecution started losing before the case began. A Defense Attorney for Donta Allen, the only person who was in the police van with Gray, said his client was interviewed by Prosecutors and they did not disclose the conversation to the defense.

Michael Schatzow and Janice Bledsoe
Somehow, Defense Attorneys and disgruntled police investigators are shining a light on the disdain for the Prosecution team of Michael Schatzow and Janice Bledsoe. The seasoned prosecutors have lead the inquiry in all three trials. If you’re scoring at home one mistrial (retrial in September) and one acquittal. Losing the case against Goodson could put them in a hole, the equivalent of 0-3; and by extension questioning the need of Baltimore State Prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, to bring charges against the six Baltimore City Police officers.

The Baltimore Police Union, who has questioned the charges from the start, has “smelled blood in the water” suggesting the state should drop all the charges. The tension arising between the police, the state attorney’s office, and the public is palatable. It was on full display following the “Baltimore Uprising.” Murders spiked in the city and some suggested police “took a knee” in protest to the arrest and charging of its own officers.

Five of the six officers have filed defamation suits again Mosby (beating a May 1st deadline) alleging “their illegal arrests were made without probable cause and demonstrated ill will, improper motivation and/or evil purpose," according to their attorneys. They go on to say they filed false charges "in furtherance of [their] own personal interests and political agenda." Also named in the suit was Sheriff's Office Maj. Samuel Cogen, he investigated the police officers.

Observers of the case against Goodson, a veteran officer, was the only one to invoke his right not to testify under the Maryland Police Officers Bill of Rights (the State Legislature has changed this provision). Goodson, the police van driver, transported Gray after his arrest. During the ride the 25 year old Gray who was in his custody, died.

Following an order by the judge to turn over all discovery to the defense that was not disclosed we learned not only had the Prosecution not disclosed an interview with Donta Allen, who was in the van with Freddie Gray. We also learned the lead investigator, Dawnyell Taylor, had a falling out with the prosecution. She was removed from the case because Lead Prosecutor Schatzow said she was trying to “sabotage the case.” Both Taylor and Allen were put on the stand.

Taylor, a former marine, took over from Detective Syreeta Teal who had to leave for medical reasons. In testifying for the Defense she told Judge Williams she meet with Dr. Carol Allan, the Assistant Medical Examiner, on two occasions (April 23rd, and April 29th 2015). During her first meeting Dr. Allan told her Gray’s death was “an accident.” At the second meeting with Baltimore Police brass in attendance she called it a “freakish accident.” This claim refuted her earlier testimony on the stand, when Dr. Allen refuted Defense charges she had made this statement.

During cross examination by the Prosecutor Schatzow, things got testy.

Schatzow: Isn’t it true you had problems with Ms. Bledsoe?
Taylor: Yes.
Schatzow: You were removed because you were trying to sabotage the investigation?
Taylor: You don’t have the authority to remove me.
Schatzow: What if I told you I had letter from your superior, saying you were removed at my request.

(Bench hearing with Judge Williams).
Questioning continues under adversarial conditions with glares and stares between Taylor and Bledsoe.

Schatzow asks a question regarding Taylor's contact with the prosecutors.

Taylor: We ceased contact with prosecution.
Schatzow: On August 4, 2015 you provided information/notes to the defense on case. Things that weren’t in our packet.
Taylor: I gave the same thing to the prosecution. I handed it to Ms. Bledsoe who looked at them and pushed them back across the table.

(Another bench hearing)
Schatzow focuses on the April 23rd meeting with police brass. Asks about Dr. Allan telling the group about a “freakish accident.”

Schatzow: The officials in the room were pleased with that conclusion (paraphrase).
Taylor: I’m not certain.
Schatzow: In fact you didn’t take notes at the April 23rd meeting nor at the April 29th meeting.
Taylor: I wasn’t in charge.
Schatzow: Dr. Allan never said the manner of death was an accident?
Taylor: She said it was an accident.
Schatzow: Det. Taylor didn’t Ms. Bledsoe question your integrity?
Taylor: (agitated) I questioned Ms. Bledsoe integrity?

Judge Williams calls for a recess. When we return Taylor steps down from testifying.

Donta Allen

The arrival of Donta Allen in handcuffs and leg irons caused a buzz in the courtroom. The judge has allowed a transcript and a video deposition he had with homicide detectives in as evidence to as a remedy for prosecution from failing turning over evidence. Neither side has wanted to use Allen in any of the previous trials, despite the fact he was in the police van with Gray, and has firsthand knowledge. Allen’s statements have changed so many times you don’t know what he’s going to say.

The questioning for Allen begins with a simple question from Defense Attorney Mr. Allen do you remember your arrests on April 12th, 2015. Allen responds, “I don’t recall anything that day.” There is a bench hearing. Attorney produces a transcript of what he told investigators, “How can this document refresh my memory…I don’t remember anything.” They proceed to show Allen’s integration by a pair of officers. The tape is stopped, Judge Williams calls for a recess and has to take up another case not related to the Freddie Gray Trials.

When the case resumes we see Allen talking to investigators being cooperative. The deposition points to several factors favorable to the defense. Allen tells them he heard Gray “banging his was crazy loud.” He demonstrates to officers. Says the ride from Pennsylvania and North Avenues was a “smooth ride.” When they arrive in officers says Gray is unconscious.

It’s also during this interrogation Allen makes some inconsistent statements. Starts by telling officers he was on the right side of the van (Gray was on the right side). He is unable to tell officers if the banging was on the right or left side of the van. The judge accepts video into evidence.

As the questions begin again, Allan has to admit the tape refreshed his memory. As Prosecutor Bledsoe questions Allen, we learn there were two interviews one at the Western District and another at the Downtown Homicide Offices where he was video-taped. While on the stand Allen says Detectives offered to let him go if he took his card. He had to also admit he could never see Gray because of the partition in the van. “I can’t tell he was banging his head because I didn’t see him.” He says he told a television station the noise was more like a rapping sound.  At the time of his interrogation he was never charged with anything.

In the most telling question and answer he was asked if he was under the influence when he gave the deposition. He tells Prosecutor he was using “heroin and Xanax.”

It was clear he has an adversarial role with police telling Prosecutor Bledsoe, “I was trying to get out of jail…I don’t trust the police.” He also offer a damning statement from an unidentified officer who said, “He got a run for his money.” A reference to the trip which left him deceased.

During cross examination by the Goodson’s Defense Attorney, he ask him to read parts of his deposition testimony out loud in court. He challenges the attorney several times asking him, “Why you got be so loud.” The judge admonishes the attorney. Things get testy when he is asked to read a section where he tells detectives he is “sober and clean…all I had is a Pepsi.” When asked to explain his answer, “I lied!”

Neither testimony helped the Prosecution’s case. The judge has been very clear, when he was asked to dismiss the case after the state had rested he noted the state had not prevented compelling evidence to back up its claim of a “rough ride,” nor had it provide the pre-requisite evidence in the charge of “depraved heart.” He let the case continue but like the Officer Edward Nero case the judge can only weigh the facts and not the emotions in this case


Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Judge Decides

It's been a while since I've signed in here because it's been hectic.

Judge Barry Williams
One the stories that has gripped Maryland, and the nation is the Freddie Gray Trials of the police officers. Officer William Porters trial ended in a hung jury (he'll be retried). That won't be the case for Officer Edward Nero (one of the white officers) charged in the case. Its taken two weeks and tomorrow Judge Barry Williams will decide his fate. Police are on standby, but I don't think there will be any disturbances. Normally you've find my material on, but a lot went on this week. So here are my observations.

(Baltimore, MD) The fate of Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero is in the hands of Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams. Officer Nero, a bike cop, was one of two policemen who chased Freddie Gray. The apprehension of Gray set in motion events which would lead to his death.

Officer Nero is charged with second degree assault, reckless endangerment, and two counts of misconduct in office. The Prosecution paints a narrative where the actions of Nero weren’t warranted. Conversely, the Defense sees a policeman doing his job which does not rise to a crime. For the last two weeks each side has put on experts with intimate knowledge about police policy and procedures.
Atty. Marc Zayon and Off. Edward Nero

Several facts were agreed to by all parties. The area where the Gray was chased was a known drug area. Officer training includes General Orders. The police department conducted an audit to see if officers were seat belting suspects. While these were areas of agreements challenges went back and forth.

The Witnesses

State's Attorney Michael Schatzow strategy started with what can be described as “show and tell.” Armed with CCTV video surveillance footage Prosecutor Schatzow paraded police officers and experts to explain what they were seeing and hearing. The footage shows the initial stop where Gray is cornered by police. It also shows the second stop where police removed metal cuffs replacing them with plastic cuffs and leg irons.

A separate video was shown where a police recruit in civilian clothes is taken through an arrest. He appears to be same height and weight of Gray. Police explain they want to demonstrate an arrest using a police van. We see him placed in hand cuffs and lead into the van. He slides along the bench without a seat belt. He is then asked lay face down on the floor and try to get up on his own. It takes him several minutes for him to do so.

This video didn’t play well with court observer Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Alston, “Freddie was injured when he was put in that van. He couldn’t have done the things demonstrated that the cadet did.” Despite her protest this case will be decided by the judge and not emotion.   

The highlight of the trial was the testimony of Nero’s partner, fellow Bike Officer Garrett Miller. Miller was compelled to testify and granted immunity. It’s the first time Maryland has allowed a defendant who is facing trail in a similar case to be deposed on the stand.

Officer Miller revealed several items during his testimony. According to the bike officer he executed the arrest of Gray. Placing him in handcuffs during the first stop. At the second stop he tells the judge he removes the metal cuffs from his hands and replaces them with plastic cuffs. Miller also places Gray in leg irons.   During questioning Officer Miller says, all Nero did was assist in putting Gray in the van by lifting his feet.

We also learn for the first time why no one questioned the need for a chase on the radio. According to the bike officer, no one questioned the foot chase because they were “keeping the key clear.” A reference to not talking over one another on the radio.

Lastly, though we never heard from Nero on the stand, we heard his voice during an interrogation by Detective Michael Boyd. We hear Nero describe events. What was telling, he constantly uses the term “we.” The prosecution points to this assistance in the arrest suggesting he was more than a passive bystander.

Defense Attorney Marc Zayon used a number of former and current police officers to drive home the point many of the procedures used by Officer Nero were “standard operating procedures.” Former Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Chief Tenecky Longo, Jr. was asked to explain Baltimore Police Department Training which he conducted for 18 years. He talked about General Orders and officers given discretion while in the field.  

Sergeant Robert Himes, who trained Nero on using his mountain bike, drove home the point “he never belted a prisoner in a van.” This was a repetitive mantra from a number of policemen who took the stand.

Michelle Martin, Maryland Assistant Attorney General, was the only non-police officer called by the defense. Prior to her appoint to her current position she taught legal classes to police recruits. The defense focused in on so call “Terry stops.” This refers to a legal case from 1968, Terry v. Ohio. In this case police can detained an individual without probable cause. There are now rules as to how long you can detain an individual without charging them with a crime, what kinds of information you need to collect during this stop, and if it violates 4th Amendment.

Martin describes a “Terry stop” as a brief encounter on a suspicion of a crime being committed. She tells the judge recruits were tested on the stops.

The Judge

Officer Nero’s decision to ask for a “bench trial” rather than a jury trial received mixed reviews. Defense Attorney Warren Brown said, “I think it favors the prosecution theoretically, because you only have to convince one person beyond a reasonable doubt.” University of Maryland Law Professor Douglass Colbert sees it differently especially in the case of police officer, “the strategy of choosing a judge has proven to be a tried and true successful strategy.”

Inside the courtroom, the dual role Judge Williams plays was especially telling during closing arguments. Normally, each side lays out their case without challenge. That was not the case in this closing. The Judge peppered each side on the facts in the case. It frustrated the attorneys, who were under a time limit. He did allow them to extend their remarks because of the questions.

State Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe came under scrutiny over the assault charge. “When does the assault begin?” The judge asks. She wasn’t prepared but eventually answered. The question from the Judge which stumped Bledsoe was “Is it a crime when there is an arrest and no probable cause?” The prosecutor wanted to shift attention from the question because police make a number of arrest without cause. Reluctantly, she says, “yes.”

Freddie Gray in Shock Trauma Unit
Defense Attorney Zayon wasn’t immune from the judge’s scrutiny. He was arguing the need for discretion on the part of police officers when Judge William’s interjected. “They (police officers) are supposed to follow General Officers?” Zayon was also reluctant to say, “Yes.”

The judge also took issue with defenses idea why seat belts are needed for prisoners in vans. The judge wonders out loud, if there isn’t a need for seat belts “isn’t that reckless endangerment?” The defense disagrees.

Unlike a jury, the Judge knows the law and will apply it in this case. Some observers believe the delay in the verdict until Monday is a direct result of the running of the Preakness Horse Race where law enforcement officials are on high alert. Monday, Sheriff’s deputies will cordoned off the area around the courthouse keeping protesters away as Baltimore and the nation await the verdict in this case.