Baltimore prosecutors lost 21 murder cases in trial last year. The Baltimore Sun explores some of the reasons. Many elements of the criminal justice system had been changed in a bid to boost conviction rates. Prosecutors gained the power to decide how much evidence is needed to file murder charges, keeping the weakest cases from moving forward. The city focused its resources on violent offenders. Federal prosecutors chipped in. Police and prosecutors received fresh training. Prosecutors now abandon far fewer cases – down from a quarter of murder indictments a decade ago to one in 10 now. Still, the odds of a Baltimore jury’s convicting someone of killing another person are a little better than a coin toss.
Some cases fail because of police or prosecutor mistakes. Even under the best circumstances, prosecutors often can’t overcome a street culture that tolerates violence and thrives on fear. Cases are lost because witnesses pocket information about murders until they’re arrested and need a bargaining chip. Those witnesses, often addicts, are likely to recant during trial or have rap sheets so long that the jury discounts their testimony. Jurors may be unwilling to ruin a man’s life on the testimony of addicts. They can be suspicious of police, ignore court rules, or have unrealistic expectations of forensic science.