Harm can come from family squabbles and verbal jabs or it can be seen in physical violence from friends or strangers. Harm can also be done in response to being harmed, creating an unending back and forth between parties. How should society handle cases where harms are multiple, concurrent, and experienced by all parties? There are no easy answers here — especially in a world where we rarely find a perfect victim or monstrous villain. 

One thing we can say for certain is that our current criminal justice system is particularly bad at handling such cases. Its basic framework requires that there only be two sides — the accused and the accuser, the harmed and the person who commits the harm, the innocent and the guilty. We are told that to solve our problems we simply take them to the legal system — and in that way the truth will be uncovered and justice served. We are told that “accountability” means punishment for the guilty party. The whole premise is based on the pure innocence of the harmed person who needs society to protect them and punish on their behalf. Their agency is reduced to the point that, even if they wish to stop the process to avoid punishment of the accused, the state is the one who makes that decision for them. The result is that, if a victim is not perfectly innocent, then the only option is that they, too, are guilty and by definition shouldn’t be seen as a victim.

This story also appeared in Baltimore Courtwatch

In April 2020, Baltimore Courtwatch observers were disturbed to hear a case that still haunts us. A then-18-year-old was up for a bail review hearing. The young person was charged as an adult for possessing a firearm as a minor.

The gun he was charged with possessing was allegedly found under his recently shot and paralyzed body when medics arrived to save his life. The defense attorney noted that after his initial hospitalization at Shock Trauma, he was moved to the infirmary at a local detention center. In the infirmary, he was so egregiously mistreated that he developed bedsores which meant he was sent back to Shock Trauma. Once recovered, he was sent right back to that same infirmary. Surely someone bedridden, physically paralyzed, and a gun violence survivor is worthy of compassionate release. 

Assistant State’s Attorney Tonya Lapolla did not believe so. Her response to the defendant being a survivor of gun violence was chilling. She insisted that his paralysis did not mean he was not a threat to public safety and argued for him to be held without bond. A representative from Baltimore’s pretrial services insisted he was “an extreme threat to public safety,” but granted that his paralysis “somewhat diminishes” the threat. Judge Philip Jackson ordered to electronic home monitoring. 

You may assume this is a rare occurrence. Let us describe a similar case we heard just a few months later.

In July 2020, our observers listened to a case where a gun violence survivor was being prosecuted with a litany of gun-related charges. A shootout had erupted, resulting in deaths and injuries, traumatizing a neighborhood. Prosecutors charged this person one year after the incident in question using dubious forensics. The assistant state’s attorney for the case acknowledged this person did not fire a weapon. Unacknowledged by the prosecution was that, four days after the initial incident, the defendant was shot multiple times, leaving him paraplegic and without parts of his liver, spleen, and pancreas.

In this bail hearing, the assistant state’s attorney argued he should be held without bond, and pretrial services agreed. Judge Gregory Sampson stated he was “not concerned” with his medical issues but had concerns he may become “ambulatory” if released. He said that the defendant could go home but must wear an ankle monitor as a means of surveillance. This case is still being pursued by prosecutors today.

These cases exemplify the limits of a punitive justice system. In our city, gun violence survivors don’t receive the protection they need because they are not the “perfect victim.” We all know from our own lives that reality does not contain perfectly good people, and when we allow our system to demand victims and survivors of violence be perfect, it perpetuates the cycle of harm. Requiring a person experiencing violence to prove they did not “deserve” the violence is an age-old way of justifying violence. Whether it’s interpersonal violence, police violence, or any other violence, it is not relevant whether the person harmed is ‘good’ beyond reproach. People are complicated and do not deserve further punishment to make some feel that “at least something is being done.”