The Gratuitous, Vicious Murder of Stephen Pitcairn as a Reflection of Baltimore and Maryland’s Failed Criminal Justice System

–Richard E. Vatz

By now virtually everyone in Maryland knows that a wonderful young man, Stephen Pitcairn, was killed on July 25, as described in The Baltimore Sun, while walking on St. Paul Street after having left a Bolt Bus at Penn Station. He was talking to his mother on his cell phone, a loving parent who suggested that Mr. Pitcairn take a cab home. He was accosted by malevolent criminals, who murdered him despite his apparently complying with their demands that he give up his money and wallet.

John Alexander Wagner and Lavelva Merritt are charged with his murder, first-degree murder, and the evidence of their guilt leaves little room for doubt, except regarding relative responsibility between the two miscreants. The evil nature of the accused can be inferred from the facts of the crime and the additional datum that, as the Sun reported from “court records,” they bragged after the slaying that they had been “hunting to rob someone” and that “they had robbed and ‘hurt’ a ‘white boy…’ “

The question almost immediately came up: why were these homicidal criminals free to roam the streets? As The Washington Post wrote in their barebones coverage: “Thirty-four-year-old John Wagner has a long criminal record but has served little prison time.”

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The Sun sums up as follows the difficulties of those in this case who sincerely want to aggressively pursue the incarceration of violent criminals as well as some of the outcomes perpetrated by irresponsible and apparently unaccountable principals:

•Wagner pleaded guilty to a vicious assault on his then-girlfriend in 2008 and received eight years in prison, but the entire sentence was suspended. He was charged with violating his probation on four occasions, but each time a city judge ordered that the terms of his supervision remain unchanged.

•In April, Wagner was caught on city surveillance cameras robbing a man at a downtown gas station and was arrested at the scene after the victim gave a detailed account and identified his attacker. But the victim later got skittish and refused to cooperate. Prosecutors dropped the case.

•And on July 22, a Baltimore County judge issued an arrest warrant for Wagner for violating his probation in a 2009 car theft conviction. But it was added to a backlog of tens of thousands of unserved warrants.

There are many ways to understand how the killer could have been free, and, as even casual observers of Baltimore City and Maryland know, this case is hardly unusual, except in the amount of information available.

There is among many judges, and there is no way to get empirically precise information on this, a prevailing perpetrator-sympathetic perspective. I used to take my classes twice a year to Circuit Court in Towson, because forensic persuasion is part of good rhetorical training.

Visit after visit, year after year, I would see the same drama: vicious and dangerous thugs with long histories of probation-before-judgment and/or “time-served” punishments would go before extremely knowledgeable judges who would ream them out. Then, incongruously, the judges would give them nominal punishments and/or probation, and the criminals would in their affectations of respectfulness, docility and hyper-contrition leave the courtroom soon to be free to maraud again.

Supporting this live-and-let live attitude toward violent criminals is the general ethic of emphasis on “rehabilitation” toward horrible criminals. The classic purposes of punishment include prominently incapacitation, retribution and deterrence as well. The subordinating of incapacitation in the hierarchy of purposes of punishment as well as the general feeling that “retribution” is unseemly and that deterrence is never affected by punishment, especially the death penalty, contribute to the criminal-friendly ethos of Baltimore and Maryland.

The public can vote for tough judges and oppose politicians who appoint weak ones. If people are serious about disincenting violent crime, they can begin by active persuasion toward that end.

As for investigative organs, newspapers such as The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post and others should investigate the criminal justice system in Maryland, including interviews of prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges (on or off the record), victims of violent crime and probation and parole officers and other relevant sources. Possibly in this way we can find out how we can make incarceration of violent criminals more likely and ascertain where (and in whom) the problems and challenges lie.

–Professor Vatz teaches rhetoric and communication at Towson University

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