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May 27, 2005

"You can be a prosecutor" correspondence course

As part of Pillage Idiot's correspondence course to turn you into Doug Gansler, the top prosecutor for Montgomery County, the guy who wants to prosecute the two snipers, I'm offering this multiple-choice question based on a front-page story in today's Washington Post. I'll give you the link later so you can't cheat.

Your job is to pick the proper public response from the State's Attorney for the county. Here's the true hypothetical:

Antoinette C. Starks left the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup about 2:30 Tuesday afternoon after serving 16 months for malicious destruction of property.

The next night -- less than 28 hours after being freed -- she was back in police custody after more than 25 witnesses told investigators that Starks, wielding four large butcher knives, chased several women at a Nordstrom store in a Montgomery County shopping center, stabbing two of them, police said.
Now the question:

When issuing your public statement after this double stabbing attack in an upscale store in an upscale shopping mall, what do you say:

(A) "We will do everything in our power to put the offender behind bars."
(B) "I will work with the police chief and the mall owners to increase security at the mall."
(C) "The attacks were a random set of events and an absolute aberration in an otherwise safe mall and neighborhood of Bethesda."

If you picked answer (C), you're well on your way to becoming Doug Gansler, because you understand that the most important thing is not to put people in prison (answer (A)) or to provide security (answer (B)) but rather to cover your tuchis.

To be fair, answer (c) is not verbatim, but it contains key phrases quoted in the Post. In any event, my point remains. The perp is a woman with a history. She had just been released early from prison after serving 18 months of a 2-1/2 year sentence. Her release may not have been Gansler's fault -- though I wonder whether Gansler's office was consulted in advance about the early release -- but once the woman was caught, everyone in law enforcement knew who she was. (See update below.)

In fact, it turns out that I personally have a history with Ms. Sparks. The article reports that she was serving her prison time for repeated acts of vandalism:
Officials said Starks, 48, may have been living out of a storage shed before she was sent to prison. She had been in a handful of scrapes with the law and was convicted in 2003 of vandalizing vehicles, business signs, buildings, sidewalks, windows and patio furniture in Rockville with the spray-painted phrase "David is a [expletive]." Before Wednesday night's incident, she had not been accused of such a violent felony.
The "expletive" was "bitch." I have no idea what "David is a bitch" means, but Ms. Sparks spray-painted it in black on my car while it was parked in a Metro parking lot. (A press release about the vandalism arrest is here.) I reported the vandalism to the police, who almost laughed when I told them, because they'd had many previous reports of vandalism with the same phrase. But after a detective called my wife for more details two days later, I never heard from them again. I wasn't asked to testify against Ms. Sparks, either, and I have to assume my case was not one of the charges actually brought against her.

In case you think I'm making any of this up, here's a photo of my car, which my son took at the time. We got almost all the paint off ourselves, and then my service station removed the rest the next time I took the car in.

UPDATE (5/29): I noticed something relevant to whether Gansler's office was involved in the early release when I looked at the Baltimore Sun's article about the stabbings:
Starks was sentenced in January 2004, but was released early after District Judge Cornelius Vaughey reduced her sentence, said Louis Leibowitz, the public defender who represented her in that case.
I don't know much about Maryland procedure, but a little research suggests that early release is accomplished on motion of the convicted person. Rule 4-345 of the Maryland Rules of Procedure seems to allow the court to modify a sentence on motion. (Maryland lawyers should feel free to correct me on this.) If there's a motion, presumably the state can oppose the motion. Which leads back to my question about Gansler's office's role in Ms. Starks's early release. Did they oppose the early release? And even if they did, wouldn't this explain why Gansler was so defensive when she stabbed two people just over a day after her release?

UPDATE (6/19): I've been a little irritated at how the story of the stabbings has dropped off the media radar screen, so at the risk of being accused of "committing journalism," I did some follow-up on this. It seems that the early release on the vandalism charges was the result of the public defender's partially successful motion to reconsider the sentence. A portion of the sentence was lopped off. There is no indication of the prosecution's position on that motion, and Mark Felt was unavailable to help me. Maybe Woodward has some ideas.