If you have never done it, observing court proceedings could seem boring, monotonous, or even confusing. Eventually, you start to find the rhythm and understand the jargon. Then you begin to realize your initial confusion was not just because you didn’t understand the format or language – it’s that nothing about the process fits the story we’ve been told about our criminal justice system.

This story also appeared in Baltimore Courtwatch

Baltimore Courtwatch started doing this work because the courtrooms that exist in the popular imagination and the rights that we are told we have do not in any meaningful way exist in real life. The bail review process is one of the places where this is most stark and most jarring.

One example of this is the presumption of innocence. People imagine a justice-minded judge or defense attorney protecting a person who may appear guilty at first glance. They might think that the accused will be allowed time, space, and evidence to prove that they didn’t do the thing they are accused of. The reality is that guilt is often assumed above and beyond all reasonable doubt.

The legal standard in bail reviews is that the allegations or charges must be viewed in a light most favorable to the state. Judges will often reject or cut off any discussion of why the facts may show a person is innocent. That includes violations of constitutional rights or police tactics that are illegal. The reason is that, in their words, “that is a trial matter.” Meaning that the bail hearing is not for determining innocence or guilt but for setting bail. The result is that in these hearings, the police report or “statement of probable cause” is presumed true.

This is especially infuriating because bail reviews happen before the trial. That means that the person has not had their day in court and is legally innocent. In fact, the charges may still be dropped and often are. In the reality of Baltimore City courtrooms, a person who has not been found guilty of anything can be held for months (in some cases, we have observed, more than a year) based solely on the fact that they are presumed guilty in these hearings.

In one recent case, Judge Christopher L. Panos heard a person being held in a cage ask to be allowed home detention so he could help care for his three children, including a newborn. The defense attorney explained that his partner prematurely gave birth after his arrest, and her postpartum depression was severe enough that she was nearly hospitalized. This father waited for the opportunity to explain all the difficulties facing his family and begged to be allowed on electronic monitoring lockdown at home. Panos responded that he was “very aware” of the “horrific unintended consequences” of “your criminal activity” before ordering him held without bond. To be clear, this person has not been found guilty of any of the charges he was being held under.

You may wonder if this is an outlier judge or circumstance. After observing more than 6,000 hearings, we can assure you it is not. Judges are humans and can find paths to justify the outcome they want. This reality of a presumption of guilt often appears in cases involving young people. 

In some cases, we have heard young people appear with a mountain of community support. Parents, extended family, teachers, coaches, and other community members will appear or write letters giving support and promising to be even more involved moving forward. Judges will then lament that a young person whose case is before them with that much support would still do wrong. It is taken as evidence that they are beyond help. However, when a young person appears with little or no support and a history of trauma is presented by the defense, judges will often explain that the lack of support makes them a larger threat to public safety. 

We hear, often from the same judge in the same docket, both of these arguments regularly. Both assume the accused must have done something wrong to be in this position. As usual for Baltimore’s youth, the system holds them guilty of simply existing. 

This presumption of guilt reveals itself in other ways as well. Recently, we heard a case involving a person being caged with several serious medical conditions. This is common. It is also common that their medical condition worsens significantly while being caged. In this case, the person’s conditions included diabetes, and they had not been receiving the proper medical care. Judge Kendra Y. Ausby, while discussing her thoughts prior to ruling on the bail review, admonished this person. She acknowledged the seriousness of the health issues and said he should have taken his “fragile health” into account before being arrested. Again, a case of a defendant being presumed guilty.

Panos, Ausby, and all the other circuit court judges would likely take issue with our inability to grasp all the legal concepts involved or the minutiae of how they play out in various court proceedings. And that is exactly our point. The popular imagination version of our justice system collapses under this reality. Our judges, prosecutors, and other elected officials present a false picture of a legal system built on common sense fair standards that protect the accused. They then shake away the cognitive dissonance in a flurry of legal jargon that justifies their role in the horrors of caging humans.

The reality is that even after a damning Department of Justice report and resulting consent decree, even after the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, even after studies consistently show the ways white supremacy shapes our legal system – a Black teenager is assumed guilty based on the words of a Baltimore City Police Department officer alone. The presumption of innocence is only for the system.

Baltimore Courtwatch is made up of Baltimore citizens who watch court proceedings and report what they see in order to hold court actors accountable and end the injustice of the criminal legal system. Learn more about them at baltimorecourtwatch.org