When burglary suspects allegedly created an incriminating home video on the stolen laptop of Glenn Russell, the Mount Rainier resident said he thought the trial would be straightforward. But when the man accused of stealing the laptop walked free without a trial in November, Russell said he began to question the fairness of the justice system.
“It’s frustrating that people can come into your house and take your things and interrupt your feelings of security then get caught and ... then walk away with no reprimand,” he said. “It’s like it never happened.”
Mount Rainier officials have similar concerns, stating there have been other seemingly clear-cut cases with arrests made, but the cases were not prosecuted. As a result, the City Council and representatives from the Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office have scheduled a meeting Tuesday to discuss cases of concern as well as evidence and court procedures.
“There have been several crimes in Mount Rainier that were not prosecuted, and we’re just not really sure why,” said Mount Rainier Councilman Jesse Christopherson (Ward 1). “I think [residents] are frustrated, exasperated. It affects our reputation. It affects what businesses we can attract, so we’re very concerned about it.”
About 53 percent of Mount Rainier’s cases were not prosecuted last year, according to data from the county state’s attorney. John Erzen, spokesman for the Prince George’s County state’s attorney’s office, said the city’s percentage is average. The number is comparable to other municipalities in the county, most of which have at least half of their cases dropped, according to data provided by the state’s attorney’s office. The data did not indicate the type of crimes that were dropped, but the district courts typically handle smaller, non-violent crimes, Erzen said. The circuit court jurisdiction includes jury trials, appeals from the district court and family and juvenile matters.
According to the data, 76 of the 144 district court cases that originated from Mount Rainier last year were dropped. Nine of the cases ended in a guilty or not guilty conviction and the others fall under exception categories, which could mean the defendant is undergoing treatment or in a diversion program, Erzen said.
Erzen said around 28,000 total cases came through the district court system last year, and that there could be many reasons why a case is dropped, such as issues with evidence, the failure of an officer or witness to appear, the failure of a victim to come forward or an incorrect charge.
In Russell’s case, Erzen said the charges were for burglary, while the evidence only pointed to possession of stolen property, and the charging error was not detected before the case went to circuit court — in which case charges can no longer be amended. Erzen said a one-year statute of limitations prevented the case from being recharged and retried 11 months after the incident.
Mount Rainier Police Chief Michael Scott said crime rates have been decreasing in the city, but that Mount Rainier experienced a rash of about eight burglaries in late 2012 and another rash in 2013. Among the 2012 victims were Russell and a former councilman, he said. Scott said the councilman’s case was also dropped even though police gathered fingerprints from the back of his stolen television.
“That case caused some ire,” Scott said. “It frustrates the community and it frustrates the police who spend a lot of time gathering the evidence. These individuals need to be punished for their crimes.”
Scott said the police play a role in helping prosecutions move forward by arresting and charging suspects and gathering evidence. He said he believes the Mount Rainier Police Department has been thorough in collecting evidence around crimes committed in the city.
“The issue is not with us,” he said. “Mistakes are made, but when we have all our ducks in a row, I think it’s the state’s attorney’s responsibility to back us up.”
Scott said he thinks the county is effective in prosecuting high-profile crimes, like murder and rape, but that more attention should be paid to crimes like assault, theft and burglary.
“We’re not doing a good job prosecuting these types of incidents, we’re just not.” he said. “Every one of these defendants that have walked, that affects the victims. Without the prosecution, these people stay victims.”