Return to Justice: Baltimore Courts Reopen But Still Leave Public in the Dark

The headlines in Baltimore’s media have recently been filled with the urgency of the city’s epidemic of violent crime: meetings where businesses deliver ultimatums to the Mayor and multi-agency summits on violence reduction strategies. 

But on North Calvert Street, the grinding process of criminal justice shows none of that urgency.

Shortly before 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, three defense attorneys squeezed themselves on one side of a table before the judge’s bench. Although the case involved three co-defendants, each of whom was present, Baltimore City Circuit Court scheduled the hearing in a courtroom it deemed equipped for no more than 12 people.

One defense attorney made it very clear that this was unacceptable.

When the hearing began before Judge Robert K. Taylor, the defense attorney said she wanted it on the record that the courtroom was not appropriate for such a large case, specifically acknowledging the lack of plexiglass dividers between each attorney and the defendants. Another concern was the lack of testing of defendants as they travelled to the courthouse.

“If we want to stop this pandemic, we have to quash it,” she said, to which another defense attorney nodded in agreement.

The Baltimore courthouse is “inadequate in the best of circumstances,” Judge Taylor replied, noting that the courthouse was not equipped to handle its current number of criminal cases even before the pandemic.

Baltimore Witness has attended two additional hearings where attorneys have expressed their concerns over the lack of testing in jails prior to bringing defendants to the courthouse.

A representative from the Baltimore City Health Department’s COVID-19 call center said it follows state and CDC guidelines, noting that masks are mandated. However, no one is mandated to get a vaccine. The court system can ask for defendants’ testing results, but testing isn’t required.

Maryland Courts Government Relations and Public Affairs Office Public Information Officer Bradley Tanner said it was not a judiciary policy to test defendants prior to their arrival at the courthouse.

Persistent Problems

The problems extend beyond this lack of coordination on COVID protocols. Since in-person trials resumed in June, there have been only eight felony trials, while there is a backlog of nearly 2000 cases that need to be heard. 

The Circuit Court, which is seemingly stuck in neutral, has major and minor implications. The major ones are constitutional questions surrounding speedy trials and justice delayed and denied. 

But it is the seemingly insignificant repeated misfirings of the most basic functions of the court as a public facing institution that warn of significant problems once trials pick up.

Around 9:25 a.m. on Aug. 11, family and friends of attempted murder defendant James Phillips packed themselves into courtroom 636 in the Mitchell Courthouse for pre-trial motions. Just as the proceeding was set to begin at 9:30 a.m., a clerk informed the attendees as well as the defense and prosecution that the hearing was moved to courtroom 400 in the same building.

No explanation was given to the family, and the courtroom change was never updated on the docket or the Maryland Judiciary website.

These kinds of delays are common. 

A short list: 

On Aug. 23, an incorrect court docket scheduled a homicide motions hearing in the wrong courtroom, confusing a defense attorney with the Public Defender’s Office. Although scheduled in courtroom 600 in the Mitchell Courthouse, the Criminal Clerk’s Office informed Baltimore Witness that the hearing was in 231 of the same building.

 “I had no other communication that my courtroom had changed,” said the defense attorney, who was visibly frustrated, scrambling to gather documentation and rush to another courtroom.

Thomas’ case, originally scheduled at 9:30 a.m., was delayed even longer when the presiding judge, Judge M. Brooke Murdock, learned Thomas was not in the courthouse but still at the city jail. The hearing began more than two hours later, requiring two witnesses to wait even longer to testify.

On Sept. 23, jury selection was scheduled for homicide defendant James Boisseau but was ultimately delayed. A reason for the delay was not provided by counsel; however, jury selection continued the following day, with the trial expected to begin on Sept. 27.

The day of the trial, the courtroom was locked and no judge, bailiff, prosecutor, or defense attorney was in sight. However, the Criminal Clerk’s Office, the court’s source of all public information, could not find any information on the case. Since that is the only place relatives of victims or anyone interested in a case can find out about cases, this, in effect, closes a public hearing to the public. 

Those information lapses are moving beyond inconvenience to impact defendant representation.

At 9:15 a.m., on a gray July morning, two attorneys patiently waited in courtroom 540 in the Cummings Courthouse for reception court to begin before Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa M. Phinn.

One of the attorneys sat in the front row of the worn benches, shuffling paperwork, while the other chatted with a sheriff’s deputy standing near the courtroom’s entrance.  

“Nothing is done in a normal fashion,” said the attorney after organizing her papers. “I’ve had to come in here multiple times only to find out the case was postponed.”

“I’ve seen four or five attorneys sitting in here and the judge says, ‘You’re supposed to be on Zoom,’” the sheriff replied.

Moments later, Judge Phinn enters the room to begin reception court and immediately questions the presence of the two attorneys. As if she had heard the trio’s conversation, Phinn said all prosecutors and defense attorneys must attend reception court through Zoom.

“Everything is done virtually, except criminal trials,” Phinn noted.

This was confusing for not only the attorneys, but those in attendance, as Judge Phinn and Judge Melissa K. Copeland—who preside over the non-incarcerated reception docket—were now conducting reception court in person.

The attorneys told Phinn they were unaware of this requirement and promised to attend using Zoom next time.

All courtrooms are open for proceedings, but many remain unused. 

The court system’s information misfirings leave the question of what the post-COVID future will look like. 

Read the first article in the Return to Justice series, here.