Prince George's County prosecutors attempted to convict a woman on an attempted suicide charge this week even though there is no Maryland law that says an attempt to take one's own life is illegal.
The case got as far as a courtroom hearing before a district court judge dismissed it.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant State's Attorney William Parker, admitted that in his preparation for the court hearing he could not find an exact charge in his law books relating to attempted suicide. "But I told the judge any attempt to commit a public wrongdoing warranted consideration by the court," he said.
Parker's attempt to go forward with the case surprised not only the judge, but also the county police officer who originally arrested the woman. "The only reason to charge her [with attempted suicide] was to het her help, not to prosecute her," said Officer Jerry Assorgi. "It was a surprise to me that it got to court, I didn't expect to get called."
State's Attorney Arthur Marshall said it was the first instance he could remember in which someone was charged with attempted suicide.
The unusual case began on the afternoon of Sept. 28, when the young son of Mae West Joyner told a Prince George's County police officer that his mother was locked up in her bedroom with a rifle and was threatening to kill herself.
Assorgi stood at the door for three hours talking with the woman. "You come in and I'll blow my brains out," the woman told him through the door.
Finally, late in the afternoon, the woman surrendered to Assorgi.
Assorgi and a court commissioner then decided to charge the woman with attempted suicide after failing to think of any other charge. "We were trying to find something to charge her with, and we came up with that," said Assorgi. "I couldn't charge her with disorderly conduct in her own home."
The Joyners' attorney, public defender Gary Bair, said he could not believe the state was going to prosecuite the woman, who had been sent recently to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women after being convicted on a charge unrelated to her attempted suicide.
On Tuesday, the day Joyner was to be in court for her attempted suicide case, Bair approached prosecutor Parker. "You're not going to prosecute her, are you?" Bair said he asked Parker.
Bair said the prosecutor offered a plea bargain if the woman pleaded guilty.
"That's what burned me up about it," said Bair. "I said there was no such crime, no evidence, that it was crazy to prosecute it."
The woman pleaded innocent.
Parker said yesterday that his workload that day prevented him from looking more deeply into the case.
"I had 60 cases in court.I obviously couldn't go through all the cases to see what the charges were."
So Parker presented his case, including testimony from the police officer. He told District Court Judge Louis Ditrani that the attempted suicide was illegal under Maryland common law.
Bair then got up and asked Judge Ditrani to grant an immediate acquittal in the case.
Judge Ditrani agreed. "I talked to the woman," the judge said in an interview yesterday, "she said, 'I was depressed.'" He granted the motion for acquittal.
Parker said he still belives it was correct to prosecute Joyner. "I gave a strenuous argument for it," he said.