Kurt Schmoke, who just completed his first six months as Baltimore's new chief prosecutor--after a rough-and-tumble election victory over longtime incumbent William A. Swisher--leans back in his office chair and says with tentative assurance, "I'm having more good days than bad."
The reform candidate and black political activist says he already has made his imprint on the sprawling 123-member state's attorney's office, abolishing the practice by his assistants of outside legal work, imposing more organizational discipline and hiring a slew of young black and women lawyers for what has been traditionally a white male bastion.
Even so, Schmoke says that when he first arrived last January he found to his pleasant surprise that "there were more people here that agree with my philosophy than agreed with Bill Swisher's."
Swisher, a gritty white populist who spoke a tough law-and-order rhetoric and found his political base in the blue-collar ethnic enclaves of this industrial city, had run the prosecutor's office with a strong hand and also, according to supporters and critics alike, with extraordinary efficiency, given the caseload-choked conditions of the court system.
Schmoke indicates, on the one hand, that he has decentralized some of the power of the office, allowing assistants more discretion in plea bargaining, for example.
But on the other hand, he has tightened internal management, appointing a personnel director, enlarging the narcotics prosecution unit with a 24-hour, on-call duty roster among staff assistants and restructuring the juvenile division to allow more career promotions within the division.
Formerly, Schmoke says, the division was a dead end for aggressive or ambitious prosecutors but because half the suspects arrested in the city are juveniles, a greater priority had to be given that division.
Abolishing the tradition of part-time prosecutors with private outside income--one of Schmoke's most controversial campaign promises--triggered an immediate exodus of more than a dozen assistants, and by the end of June, 23 assistants, most of them white men, had left the office.
Schmoke has hired 21 new assistants, nine of them black and 12 of them women. "A lot of them are 'two-fers,' " he said, referring to black female assistants.
Critics, including former staff members now in private practice, say Schmoke's no-outside-income rule forced several veteran prosecutors out and robbed the office of experience. The critics, who asked not to be named, contend most of the newly hired are young and wet behind the ears.
"Some of those new women trial assistants don't even know how to introduce a gun into evidence," smirked one former prosecutor.
Schmoke counters that many on the new staff are a reflection of "the increased number of blacks and women coming out of law school," and that while they may be young and relatively inexperienced, they are well qualified and are being taught the ropes by more senior hands in the office.
Schmoke, 33, a star athlete in high school, a Rhodes scholar and member of the prestigious Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury, says he is well aware of the "street talk" about how the state's attorney's office is running under his stewardship--that he is soft on criminals, opposes capital punishment, has politicized the office and arranged the dismissal of hundreds of legally strong cases to reduce the backlog.
He acknowledges reducing the backlog but said he did it by getting Baltimore City Circuit Administrative Judge Robert L. Karwacki to temporarily institute night court. Several hundred cases were disposed of by plea agreements, probationary sentences and a few dismissals, Schmoke said.
The "politicization" charge stems chiefly from his decision shortly after taking office last February to drop an investigation started by Swisher into allegations of insurance fraud by Frank Conaway, a black former state legislator and insurance executive. Schmoke says, however, that he acted only after receiving a formal finding that there was insufficient evidence to indict Conaway.
As for capital punishment, Schmoke acknowledges he would recommend its use more sparingly than Swisher but says he favors the Maryland death penalty statute with its array of "aggravating" and "mitigating" circumstances that a jury must weigh in determining the death penalty in individual cases. "There are some cases," he says, "that are such an outrageous affront to society" that capital punishment is appropriate.