Is There A Return to Justice at the Baltimore City Circuit Court?

Around 1:45 p.m. on June 15, 2021, family members of defendant Dennis Padgett arrived at the Mitchell Courthouse to attend a hearing before Judge Pamela J. White at 2 p.m. in courtroom 309.

Padgett had been sentenced to life in prison in 2017 for killing two men over a parking spot two years prior, but the case was reactivated in April 2020 following an appeal.

Ten minutes past 2 o’clock, members of the Padgett family checked the time on their phones. The hearing had been scheduled to begin 10 minutes before.  One of the family members let others know the proceeding was delayed. They would do so every 10 to 15 minutes for the next hour, as they waited on the polished, yet visibly worn benches. 

The only noise in the courtroom came from a door to an office behind the judge’s bench, allowing chatter from court employees to fill the silence. Only once did an employee walk into the courtroom to grab some papers. Nobody seemed to notice or even register that the family was patiently waiting to hear an update in the case against their loved one.

It wasn’t until Baltimore Witness contacted two separate offices in the Mitchell Courthouse that the family learned that Padgett’s hearing had been held through Zoom over three and half hours earlier.

“I called the courthouse yesterday to confirm it was in this room at this time,” a family member told Baltimore Witness.

“Wires must have been crossed,” was the explanation given by a representative of the judge’s chambers.

The Padgett family isn’t the only one experiencing problems with the court system’s current operations. Fifteen months after the Baltimore Circuit Court closed in response to the pandemic, it is limping back into action.

As Baltimore deals with surging violent crime, much of the public attention is on controversial policies implemented by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and persistent problems in the police department.

But, the depth of the challenges facing Baltimore lie outside of the public attention at 111 North Calvert Street, the home of Baltimore Circuit Court. It is here where the depth of the mundane but fundamental challenges facing Baltimore’s criminal justice system are on full display.

They tell the story of a return to justice that is proving to be anything but smooth. 

Even as the courts resume in-person hearings, many of the proceedings remain remote, as they have been since in-person trials were halted in March 2020. Every day, dozens of defendants have their cases heard via Zoom, requiring the judge, prosecution and defense counsel to conduct each case over video. Meanwhile, family members must dial in and listen for their case to be called.

But even after a year, technological problems still exist. The likelihood of clearly hearing case information is a coin toss during every hearing. Prosecutors, defense counsel, defendants and their families alike frequently forget to mute themselves when they call in, leaving room for private conversations, blaring traffic, and blasting radios to interfere with the proceedings. 

Judges Melissa K. Copeland and Melissa M. Phinn, who preside over most of the hearings taking place, frequently face issues of unresponsive attorneys and defendants, often due to user error and technical glitches. 

When a proceeding does reach its conclusion, there are often family members asking the judge about a defendant’s case that wasn’t called, only to learn the case was heard earlier that morning, hadn’t occurred yet, or was rescheduled for a later time and/or date.

COVID Protocols

The Baltimore City Circuit Court system had no choice but to alter its operations in March 2020 to abide with federal and state safety guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a brief reopening in the fall of 2020, the court system kept its doors closed to the public and shifted to virtual means, specifically the conference software Zoom.

Virtual hearings have persisted following a soft reopening in late April, with minimal in-person criminal hearings and trials on the daily docket. The court conducts remote and virtual hearings for non-jury trials and contested hearings for civil, criminal, family and juvenile cases. 

According to Maryland Courts Government Relations and Public Affairs office Public Information Officer Bradley Tanner, Judge Audrey J. Carrión, the administrative judge of the Circuit Court, made the decision to have criminal pre-trial hearings and jury trials in person. Civil jury trials resumed in May, with the first criminal jury trial set for mid-July.

But it would be wrong to assume that the work of the court stopped entirely for 15 months. 

“Judges have a number of other responsibilities and duties other than trying jury trials, [including] discovery, post convictions, expungements, drug court, fast track, chambers, civil signing, writing opinions, warrants, bench trials, etc.,” Tanner explained about the work that had continued. 

The resumption of in-person court hearings, even though very limited, marked the start of a return to normalcy. But, remnants of a viral pandemic loom with procedural changes instituted for entrance into the courthouse. 

Security protocols now include no-contact temperature checks, a sign-in sheet for contact tracing, and a mandatory mask requirement. Courtrooms are limited to a specific number of people depending on the size of the courtroom, including the judge, prosecution, defense, family members of the victim and defendant, sheriff’s deputies, and attending members of the public.

One problem that remains is access to public information. It starts with the daily docket that allows the public to know what is happening in court on any day.

Publicly, the District Court states that its docket is published daily at 4 a.m., but when questioned, the court acknowledged it actually happens at 7 a.m. In itself that may not be important, but when combined with court policy requiring attendees to submit a request to attend any virtual proceeding two days prior, the delayed daily docket, in effect, denies the public their right to access hearings.

Those access rules apply to all hearings including what are known as Reception and Postponement Court. Reception occurs for pleas, inactive cases and cases in which the prosecution decides not to charge defendants. The court occurs Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 9 a.m. for incarcerated defendants and 9:30 a.m. for non-incarcerated defendants. Cases that are not resolved through a plea, or are inactive or dismissed are scheduled for postponement court, which was instituted in response to the pandemic. The courts may see upwards of 20 cases per day, each.   

More Cases, More Problems

The biggest problem facing the Circuit Court is the backlog of criminal felonies and misdemeanors that accumulated during the COVID shutdown. There  are simply not enough prosecutors or defense attorneys to handle the case load.  This does not even include the rapid rise in new cases. Already this year has exceeded the 158 homicides and 286 non-fatal shootings reported in June 2020, according to the Baltimore Police Department. As of June 25, there were 162 homicides and 332 non-fatal shootings, and numbers are rising on an almost daily basis.

What this means in practical terms is, in April, when in-person hearings resumed, there were 1,522 cases backlogged. As of June 16, the number had been revised with 1,592 defendants awaiting trial in jail and approximately 350 defendants on home detention.

To put this in perspective, before the shutdown, there were 156 felonies and 12 misdemeanor criminal cases backlogged.

Incarcerated individuals, many of whom have waited months if not years for a trial date, are given priority for scheduled trials, which are currently being scheduled for 2022.

Of the 1,592 defendants in jail, 694 are over their Hick’s date, which refers to a defendant’s right to have their case tried within 180 days of their first court appearance.

As of June 14, 2,059 cases have been in pretrial proceedings for more than 180 days. According to court officials, those cases include 1,816 felonies and 243 misdemeanors. Four courtrooms have been set aside to handle these and new criminal cases. 

“Once they resolve those incarcerated defendants’ backlog cases, including those on home detention, then they will schedule non-incarcerated defendants for trial,” Tanner said. “At this point, there is no estimate on how long that will take.” 

Disorganization is also recurring in the courthouse on a daily basis, ranging from errors in the daily docket to rescheduling unbeknownst to not only defendants’ and victims’ families, but sometimes, also to prosecution and defense counsel. 

On June 21, Brian Hockaday, who is charged with an attempted murder in 2019, was scheduled for a Zoom hearing at 9 a.m. 

To attend Zoom hearings, attendees are required to contact Court Reporting Services to obtain a phone number, meeting identification number and a passcode. However, in an attempt to attend Hockaday’s virtual proceeding, a court employee notified Baltimore Witness that he could not find any Zoom information for the case.

Another employee, from the Criminal Assignment Office, also had no access information.

Even though Hockaday’s hearing was called during the 9 a.m. reception court, Baltimore Witness spoke with two employees from the Criminal Clerk’s Office, which is the central information point for all criminal proceedings at the courthouse. Neither employee could provide any information on any case, including public information that is available online.