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Summer 1997
City Journal Summer 1997.
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When Bail Fails
Dennis C. Vacco
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Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Parker sits in jail today awaiting trial, accused of murdering decorated Buffalo cop Charles McDougald (and wounding his partner, Michael Martinez) on April 9. But after repeated run-ins with the law, what was a gun-toting, drug-dealing menace like Parker doing on the streets in the first place?

Over the previous two and a half years, police had arrested Parker on five separate occasions. Officers McDougald and Martinez brought him in the first time in October 1994, having caught him with a stolen car and 21 bags of crack cocaine. In January 1995, police found him in another stolen car, this time with a loaded .357 revolver. In February 1996, Parker used a .45 caliber handgun to shoot another man in the leg; he was also carrying 13 bags of marijuana. Four months later, police apprehended him with a 9-millimeter handgun and more marijuana. When they arrested Parker again five months later, in yet another stolen car, his weapon of choice was a .380 semi-automatic pistol.

The courts did shamefully little to stop this crime spree. Indicted for three of his offenses, Parker walked free on bail each time. In March 1997 it looked as if the law had finally caught up with him. Parker pleaded guilty to gun and drug charges and accepted a plea bargain that would put him in prison for up to nine years.

Away to a cell, right? Hardly. The judge released him on $15,000 bail, pending his formal sentencing. A month later, facing years behind bars and with nothing to lose, Parker appears to have opened fire on Officers McDougald and Martinez when they tried to stop him for questioning.

How could the courts free so dangerous a man even after he had pleaded guilty to such serious offenses? The answer lies in New York State law, which demands that judges base bail decisions on a single issue: the likelihood that a defendant will show up in court. As a result, they often must send proven predators back to the streets.

As attorney general of New York, I have urged the State Legislature to give judges and prosecutors in New York's courts the same options on bail that currently exist in the federal court system. State judges should be allowed to consider public safety when determining bail. If a criminal defendant poses a threat to an individual or to the community at large, judges should be able to set bail high or refuse it altogether. In addition, New York prosecutors should have the right to appeal bail rulings they believe unreasonable. While today defense lawyers can appeal when they think bail is set too high, prosecutors must sit by quietly when bail is set too low.

These reforms wouldn't mean abandoning the presumption of innocence. The Supreme Court held in the 1987 case of U.S. v. Salerno that it's constitutional for courts to deny bail to criminal defendants believed dangerous. Detaining a suspect does not change his rights at trial; the burden still falls on the prosecutor to prove his guilt. And the benefit to the community? Preventing deaths like Charles McDougald's.

 

 


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