Keith Smith wanted the public to know that Jacquelyn Smith, his wife of four years, was killed for her kindness. According to Smith, it happened in the very first hours of December 2018, at an intersection in east Baltimore. The story he told went like this:
While driving back from a birthday celebration, the family stopped at a stop sign in their 2012 Audi A7. While they sat there, Jacquelyn saw a woman with a wrapped-up blanket holding a sign that read, “Help me feed my baby, God bless.” Jacquelyn told Keith to roll down the window on her side of the car so that she could give the woman some money. As Jacquelyn started handing over a $10 bill to the woman with the sign, another panhandler suddenly appeared. That second panhandler went up to the open window, thanked the couple for their kindness, and then began stabbing Jacquelyn before snatching a necklace off of her wounded body. As Keith and his 28-year-old daughter, who was in the car’s back seat at the time, tried to process what had just happened, the original woman who had garnered Jacquelyn’s sympathy snatched a purse from inside the car and ran off as well.
Keith called 911 to report the attack, then sped off to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, about a mile away. Despite his best efforts to get Jacquelyn there as quickly as possible, doctors were unable to save her, and she was pronounced dead just before 1 am.
When Smith’s story hit local news outlets, it unleashed a flood of previously repressed resentment towards the city’s panhandlers. Scores of angry people online seemed almost excited to hold this murder up as validation for their prejudiced views of the city, but angry people online are like that. Real institutions and powerful individuals with sway in the city and broader world rushed to get involved as well. It happened very fast, and then it just kept happening.
The trouble started with the Baltimore Police Department, as trouble in Baltimore often does. Then-interim police chief Gary Tuggle issued a warning to the public about giving out money to those begging for it on the streets, using Jacquelyn’s story as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong in interactions with the city’s most desperate people. Opinion pieces in the Baltimore Sun echoed and amplified that message of suspicion and fear. One, written by a billionaire with real estate interests in the city, suggested that the failure of police to enforce the city’s panhandling laws infringed in turn on the “right for citizens not to be murdered in their cars waiting for a light to change.” Another, by a former county executive who was convicted for misconduct in office, called panhandling “a public safety hazard at all times.” But it was Oprah Winfrey, once a local television anchor in Baltimore, who launched the story into the national spotlight when she tweeted that, though she’s given money out to panhandlers a thousand times, she’d “think twice before ever doing [it] again.”
All of this played out perfectly for Keith Smith—or all of it, perhaps, except for Oprah elevating this story to the attention of a national audience, because in reality, the murderous panhandler who was supposedly responsible for killing his wife never existed. Under brighter lights, the story that institutional Baltimore had been quite content to believe swiftly showed signs of being a fabrication.
The story Keith didn’t tell was that he and his daughter, Valeria Smith, had planned to leave the country and go to Mexico without the third member of their family. They were unsuccessful in their escape, and U.S. marshals arrested them at the border down in Texas. The two were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder; prosecutors eventually dropped the murder case against Valeria Smith and later gave her an accessory charge in June.
As the story changed shape from a random act of violence in a troubled city to a more prosaic one of domestic violence, it became clear that the people who had driven the original narrative were more than ready to move on, and the public followed suit. The story of a bloodthirsty panhandler was so fantastical, and its public telling and re-telling by Keith Smith so heart-wrenching, that the size of the gap between it and reality seemed impossible to fill, or explain. And so the celebrity-endorsed warnings were never followed up with any apologies, and the institutional actors who sought to use the tragedy to advocate for what they wanted—harsher and more discriminatory policing, mostly—stayed quiet. The commissioner of the very same police department that had warned citizens about the dangers of panhandlers now bragged about his detectives always knowing that something seemed amiss in the investigation.
Odious as all of this is, it doesn’t quite qualify as surprising. The tragic-crime-that-wasn’t fit much more cleanly into the story powerful people wanted to tell than the truth did. That broader story is what Lisa Snowden-McCray has called the “Baltimore narrative” in the Washington Post; the short version is that every call to action on the city’s major problems has historically wound up harming the city’s most vulnerable people, while also propping up the unchecked power of the city’s supposed leaders.
When news broke of Keith Smith’s story being an outright fabrication, members of the police department, the state’s attorney’s office, and the mayor’s office took time to chastise Smith for bringing a bad name to a city that has endured so much in recent memory, as well they might have. But Smith’s lies weren’t told in a vacuum. They seemed, in a cynical and disquieting way, perfectly crafted to be heard and believed and retold in Baltimore. Smith’s tall tale flattered, in its way, every leader, institution and approach currently failing the city, in ways that those in charge had trained themselves to miss. While they all might have trouble recognizing the connection, others have not.
When Keith and Valeria Smith reached for a villain who might sell their story, it made a cynical sort of sense that they’d land on an unnamed but dangerous homeless man. The Maryland Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated last year that it provided services to more than 12,000 homeless people in Baltimore; the entire city has a population of a little more than 602,000. The city’s population has been shrinking for years. The homeless population has not.
Few events illuminate the relationship between the city’s power brokers and the homeless than what happened in January of last year. That’s when former mayor Catherine Pugh tried to have people removed from a homeless encampment underneath a nearby highway, a location near the local farmer’s market, which was about to reopen. City officials claimed the removal was carried out over health and sanitation concerns, and that the displaced people would be moved to and cared for at a nearby shelter. Pugh’s administration had been clearing encampments for years, but this was the largest dismantled during her tenure. Some men and women living at the site protested, marching all the way to City Hall.
Activist Zach Zwagil works with Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group with a focus on social justice and police accountability in communities throughout the city. He was among those who didn’t buy the city’s defense of the mass removal.
“If it’s just about helping people out, why are [police officers] putting fencing up to prevent people from coming back?” he said. “Because it’s not about helping these people, it’s about clearing the area so that tourists and other folks coming in can go to the farmer’s market and other such things undisturbed.”
Alongside this removal, Pugh prioritized splashy showcase development projects, with the hope being that this would bring in more money to the city through new businesses and tourism; all of that would either help struggling communities and individuals, or not. It was the trickle-down theory applied at the level of the city. Pugh’s administration pursued this with more vigor than discretion, whether it was a headlong pursuit of Amazon or handing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to billionaires like Under Armour’s Kevin Plank. The plan was simple: Rich entrepreneurs would help the city, and those entrepreneurs would be helped in turn.
If it wasn’t already clear that the intentions behind the plutocrat outreach campaign were not entirely civic-minded, the Tent City debacle did a good deal to clear it all up. Tent City was a homeless encampment set up on August 2017 on the lawn outside City Hall. The Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped organize it, with Baltimore Bloc providing political, financial, and other kinds of interpersonal support. The protest lasted for about 10 days before heavy rainfall caused the group of homeless people to accept an agreement with the city which included four stipulations, including one that would put the homeless people in an autonomously-run transitional shelter and ultimately lead to permanent housing for the 55 residents.
The agreement was not legally binding, but it was an agreement. In short order, the crowd of people outside City Hall were moved to a school that had been shut down due to poor conditions and turned into temporary housing. In a report from the Baltimore Brew, members of the encampment family—their preferred descriptor—described a demoralizing experience in the broken-down school. They talked about bullying from administrators and sudden drug tests being sprung upon residents, and said that many of the people living there were eventually told to leave the facility. With donations having significantly slowed down, the city provided no dinner and no weekend meals. After 65 days, the group, which had significantly dwindled, were taken to a new facility that was separated into men’s and women’s areas in Jonestown, Md. In total, two people, both mothers, of the 55 taken to the school were placed in permanent public housing.
Pugh got defensive when questioned about the actions in a later press conference. Less than a year later, her own city auditor would report back that the Mayor’s Office of Human Services was such a mess that it was impossible to know just how badly the city was failing at providing homeless services. All that could be determined was that it was far from meeting its goals. As it turned out, Pugh never did have to clean up that mess. Her term as mayor ended less than a year later, when she was caught using a children’s book she wrote as a way to get money from corporate leaders and healthcare provides doing business with the city. On Nov. 21, she pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy and tax evasion.
Pugh’s actions were all the more outrageous and enraging because of how neatly they fit within Baltimore’s proud tradition of targeting the city’s least powerful people and finding ways to move them out of public view. That reflexive hyper-segregation has defined city politics since Baltimore was founded. Morgan State’s Lawrence Brown has dubbed it “The Black Butterfly,” which is also the name of a research project he authored that tracked racial segregation and investment patterns in the city. The evocative name describes the way a map of Baltimore looks when its racial population is plotted out. One color of dots marks communities with heavy black populations make up the wings of the butterfly, while another color of dots creates the “body” that signifies the majority-white neighborhoods that make up what Brown has called “The White L.”
While the name describes an analysis of racial segregation, Brown points out a strong correlation between a household’s percentage of African-American residents and a lack of city investment.
This strain of segregation has defined Baltimore’s politics for generations, but City Hall is far from the only institution in Baltimore to blame. After all, the petty, self-dealing pols that have been the norm in Baltimore for generations—Catherine Pugh is a particularly clownish example, but not quite an outlier—wouldn’t be able to make any of this work on their own.
Baltimore state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, was given about 40 seconds to speak at the March 2019 press conference in which police revealed that a panhandler had nothing to do with Jacquelyn Smith’s death. In that brief time, she did what she does best and made sure her accomplishments were noted, reminding the reporters in the room twice that this discovery could not have been made without collaboration between police and her prosecutors. To her, the show is just as important as the work itself, if not more so.
When Mosby was sworn in as Baltimore’s new state’s attorney on Jan. 8, 2015—becoming the youngest chief prosecutor in any major city at the time—she hit all the notes you’d expect from a progressive, big-city prosecutor. She spoke about rebuilding trust in the concept of justice, mending relationships between communities and law enforcement, and, perhaps most notably, reforming a criminal justice system that had disproportionately targeted and imprisoned people of color in the city.
Mosby made a series of quick and decisive actions, and it appeared as though her campaign promises would be kept. She announced that she was reviving a community liaison board that would allow the public to hold courts accountable and update communities on cases that were of high importance to them. Her office began drafting a bill that would allow prosecutors to bring evidence of similar crimes to trials of sexual assault suspects in order to better establish patterns of abuse.
But her biggest decision, which also helped launch her into national prominence, was indicting six Baltimore police officers for their roles in the death of Freddie Gray. The charges included assault, manslaughter, and second-degree depraved heart murder. Mosby’s subsequent comments about the case sounded for all the world like those of a prosecutor hellbent on proving that the police department’s long-running problems with excessive use of force and general brutality would no longer be tolerated. For a community that had seen the National Guard deployed in the streets after anger from Gray’s death boiled over to an all-out uprising, the news arrived as a silver lining.
This was still Baltimore. Keith Davis Jr. was in a west Baltimore garage on June 7, 2015, talking on the phone with his then-girlfriend, Kelly Davis, when officers shot at him 44 times. They claimed they thought Davis was a robbery suspect and mistook his phone for a gun. Seconds after Davis became the first person shot by an officer following Gray’s death, he uttered what he believed to be his last words to his girlfriend (“Baby I’ma die”) and the police (“Why y’all tryin’ to kill me?”). But Davis lived—and it was he, not the officers, who was prosecuted, as Mosby’s office filed 15 charges related to a cab robbery against him.
“The cops shot Keith in a moment when the city could very easily have exploded again over another act of police terror against a young Black man,” Angela Burneko and Chris Comeau, two representatives from Baltimore Courtwatch, a grassroots watchdog group that monitors the way local courts act on marginalized groups, wrote in an email to me. “BPD didn’t want that to happen again, and turning Keith into a criminal was a smart way to get people to ignore him.”
Kelly Davis, who is now married to Keith, really believed it would be different this time. “My first thought was, ‘Okay, as soon as it gets to Marilyn Mosby, she’ll rectify the situation and she’ll get it right,'” she said. “I held out that hope continuously. I tried to contact her, I contacted her office, I met with the investigators so that she would know what was going on. But it became increasingly clear that she was aware of what was happening, and the fact of the matter is she’s not coming to help.”
That much became clear once the process in the courts began. At a hearing in early February 2016, prosecutors used the allegation that he had fired at police officers, which appeared in Keith’s charging document, in an attempt to deny him bail. Just a couple of weeks later, when Keith’s first trial officially began, that very same discharge of a firearm charge was quietly dropped. Bail was still denied.
In Davis’s first trial, the jury acquitted him of everything but firearm possession by an individual with a felony conviction—a count Mosby’s office tacked on just before the trial. Days later, prosecutors brought new charges, these related to the death of a security guard named Kevin Jones. The gun from the first trial, which defense lawyers have maintained was planted on Davis by police, had Davis’s partial palmprint on it. It also matched shell casings found near Jones’s body, according to police. Cell phone records apparently also indicated that Davis’s phone was in the area of the murder.
Mosby’s office would go on to try Davis four times in two years. The first ended in a mistrial after all but one jury member voted to acquit. The second brought a conviction on a second-degree murder charge, after the prosecution brought a surprise witness who claimed that Davis had admitted to the murder to him while they shared a jail cell. That conviction was overturned when the defense discovered that the surprise witness was never even in the same section of the jail at the same time as Davis; it emerged that this kind of spray-and-pray snitching in hope of reducing the sentence for his own gruesome crimes was this witness’s M.O. A judge determined that a third trial could be brought, and that one ended in another hung jury. In the fourth trial, prosecutors finally got their conviction of second-degree murder, though the case also had many issues.
“As prison and police abolitionists, we don’t look to prosecutors to solve the societal problems that lead to violence,” Burneko and Comeau wrote. “However, given that every candidate for her office, including Mosby herself, has campaigned on the promise of reducing violence and particularly the murder rate, it’s notable that the city is more violent since she took office. She hasn’t succeeded by her own measures. The other big promises she made were around police accountability. Many of her supporters point to the lackluster prosecutions of the cops who murdered Freddie Gray as evidence that she attempted to make good on those promises. Keith Davis Jr. has now been prosecuted more times for a murder he didn’t commit than all of Freddie Gray’s murderers combined.”
“Lackluster” is, if anything, too kind an assessment of Mosby’s work on the Freddie Gray case, which peaked with that initial press conference and quickly petered out. For its trouble, the state attorney’s office wound up with a mistrial, three acquittals, a wealth of dropped charges, and no convictions.
(Mosby’s office had not replied to a request for comment by the time this story was published.)
And, as the Courtwatch reps say, she failed to deliver on her lofty promise of dealing with murder rates and totals. (Prosecutors have very little actual control over murder rates, of course, so that her promises set her up to fail, but they were the ones she chose to make.) While there were 860 homicides during the four-year tenure of predecesor Gregg Bernstein, more than 1,500 were committed under Mosby in that same time frame. The prolonged spike in violence served as a relentless reminder of Mosby’s failure to clear the benchmarks that she set for herself—and of the extent to which she failed the communities that she’d pledged to protect. In her attempt to square the oxymoron of being a benevolent prosecutor who is also Tough On Crime, Mosby managed to alienate and disappoint advocates of each of those very different approaches.
And yet, somehow, things have worked out fine for her. Asked about conflicts of interest after she reportedly got $12,000 of free travel for speaking engagements following her rise to national prominence—taxpayers covered $3,100 for her security detail—she told the Sun that “conflicts can be subjective.” She won re-election by a margin of 21 points.
“From one perspective, it’s genius, because she’s been re-elected,” Kelly Davis said. “Remember, she goes around the world and talks about how she’s progressive.
“In Keith’s trial, one of the state’s motions was that the defense could not say ‘Freddie Gray,’ ‘Consent Decree,’ ‘GTTF,’ et cetera. So here you have someone who … made her entire career now on these things, but they don’t fit your persecution of Keith, so now you don’t want anyone to mention it.”
Mosby has a different story to tell, now, which is mostly about herself, and she has been busy telling it.
“She’s no longer a state’s attorney,” Davis said. “She’s a star.”
You could almost be forgiven for thinking of the police as noble when it came to the investigation of Jacquelyn Smith’s death. Sure, police commissioner Michael Harrison might have been a bit cocky in a press conference in March when he announced his detectives knew the story of a murdering panhandler was bogus from the jump, but that the department still put in work to help the reputation of a marginalized population in the city. However, to city residents, Harrison’s revelation wasn’t so much the result of nobility as it was a case of irony.
“I never grew up thinking that the police were there to help,” said Erica Puentes, a research assistant in the department of African-American studies at the University of Maryland and longtime Baltimore resident. “In elementary school our teachers would teach us, ‘Oh, dial 911 if you’re in trouble’ but the kids even then already knew the culture that Baltimore police have, and even police in general, of being violent and not being there to help.
“It’s always been, ‘Fuck the police,’ it’s always been, ‘You can’t trust the police.'”
Puentes began noticing these trends in elementary school, shortly after then-mayor Martin O’Malley implemented a zero-tolerance “broken windows” policy in the city. Much as it had under Rudy Giuliani in New York City, the work of rigorously policing quality-of-life crimes in hopes of creating positive environmental and contextual effects failed to provide any net benefit to the citizenry. Instead, it gave police officers freedom to harass and arrest ordinary citizens on the street for crimes that often amounted to violations of the O’Malley’s idea of what the city should be.
Baltimore was not the only city to latch onto the policy, but few places did so harder. The broken windows experiment peaked in 2005, when a staggering 108,000 of the city’s then-600,000 residents were arrested. The mayor’s office believed that the trend would result in a safer city; more directly, it resulted in an $870,000 settlement between the city and the NAACP and ACLU in 2010 after a court decided that the thousands of arrests made from 2005 to 2007 with no probable cause indicated a pattern of abuse.
Part of this surge came as a result of O’Malley introducing a version of New York’s CompStat, known in Baltimore as CitiStat. With the introduction of this system, Baltimore police used past crimes to create predictive models of when and where bad stuff was likely to go down in the city, which had the effect of allowing an officer’s job to become more data-oriented in the worst way possible.
“If you’re in a specialized unit, you get a target area,” said former Baltimore police officer Larry Smith. “Maybe there was a spike in violence in a particular neighborhood, or area of the city, so your mission of the day may be to go and, for example, make as many arrests as you can in Cherry Hill, or clear the corners nearby and don’t let anyone congregate or stay in vacant houses. So you may go spend the day making petty arrests on the street so there aren’t a lot of people just hanging out during the summer or a weekend.”
Very quickly, the focus of policing efforts became about making the numbers look good.
“We would beef up numbers,” Smith said. “The homicides are the benchmark. The lower [the department] can get the homicides, the more successful they’re going to look. At the same time they need to justify their budget, so it goes both ways. If homicides are down, they’re going to argue that they got them down because of the budget. If homicides and shootings are up, they’ll argue for more technology, cops and equipment.”
The incentives run in a very clear direction, here, and the police force responded accordingly. Scandals inevitably followed. Some of these, like the killing of Freddie Gray and the now defunct Gun Trace Task Force, which ran an outright criminal organization, are nationally infamous. Some, like the police department’s involvement in trying to help Marilyn Mosby get Keith Davis Jr. convicted, are less so.
These major incidents, though, are far from the whole story. The Justice Department found in 2016 that the Baltimore Police Department regularly infringed on the rights of its citizens through, among other things, arresting and searching Black people at a disproportionate rate. In an ideal world, these patterns of abuse would have been noticed and acted upon in a timely manner, but that wasn’t how this department operated. “If it’s a citizen-reported incident that’s only seen by the people [in internal affairs],” Smith said, “that’s gonna sort of disappear at some point.”
During this period of lurid malfeasance, the Baltimore-based blog Ideal City found that the department’s budget increased by nearly $17 million—the average 3.5 percent bump—for the 2018 fiscal year, despite homicides being up 26 percent, shootings being up 24 percent, and robberies being up 20 percent from the previous year. By its own metrics, the police department was failing; by any measure, they were rewarded for it.
The only real discipline that this lawless and ineffective department has received has come from federal authorities. First it came at the hands of the U.S. Justice Department, which levied a consent decree against the city’s police force after repeated civil rights violations. That ruling amounts to an agreement between the city and federal government that Baltimore police will try to rebuild trust within the community by adopting a more constitutional approach to police work.
Federal courts did the rest by belatedly punishing members of the Gun Trace Task Force, a reckoning that only happened because their drug-dealing racket expanded to include a police officer from Philadelphia, which crossed state lines. Their real crimes—terrorizing citizens by planting guns and drugs at supposed crime scenes, driving their cars at and into crowds of individuals, and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars—were localized within the city’s limits, and might well never have been prosecuted.
And so actual change seems elusive. Two years into monitoring by the federal government, the police department was called out for failing to investigate its own. If this tweet from the police union, sent after a meeting between city leaders and officers regarding the ongoing federal consent decree, is any indication, the culture is not changing.
(Of course, a cursory search online shows that these complaints are rather invalid. Not long ago, video surfaced of officers putting a man on the ground in a chokehold while two cops laid on top of him.)
“In Baltimore, the police force feels like an invasion,” Baltimore Courtwatch’s Angela Burneko said. “The hostility, particularly to young Black people, and the hostility to civilians in general is really intense.”
Yet, as reporter Amelia McDonnell-Parry pointed out, it’s a dynamic that certainly suits one particular segment of the city’s population.
“If you’re someone who fears homeless people asking for money, or squeegee kids coming over to your car and cleaning your windows, then that kind of policing alleviates those fears,” she said. “You become a beneficiary of a heavier police presence in the city whether you realize it or not.” What Puentes absorbed growing up in Baltimore is borne out by the evidence: The police may be public employees, but the work they do helps some members of the public more than others.
Jacquelyn Smith was murdered, and not by the man on which her husband cannily tried to pin the crime—a homeless and powerless man, and so one least likely to receive justice in a broken city. But why was she killed? It’s still hard to say. According to Baltimore police, their investigation amounted to noticing that Keith and Valeria were acting guilty and preparing to leave the country, and then moving to bring them into custody. But the motive for the murder remains foggy, except for an interview with Keith Smith’s brother in which he tells police that Jacquelyn “was talking about divorcing Keith.”
The rest goes on as it always has. The police are the police. The government is the government. The most powerful stakeholders in the status quo push for more of the same, and every institution responds in kind. It’s not getting any better.
There is a great deal to fix, but the first step, as it always has been, would be a government that hears and responds to the people that live and work and get arrested and die in the city. Apply this basic standard to most of the city’s issues, and things would have turned out better. Had Baltimore’s citizens been listened to, the Gun Trace Task Force might not have had their criminal reign of terror go unchecked for so long. Democratic leadership in Washington might not have had to stretch themselves thin trying to defend Charm City’s cleanliness in the face of Donald Trump’s moss-brained racist attacks. Mosby’s unmet promises might have troubled her re-election campaign more. Law-enforcement authorities might not have been so keen to believe a lie that flattered their suspicions and laziness, and so might not have had to wait until Keith Smith left for the border to track him down and arrest him.
Why hasn’t anything changed? The most obvious answer is that such a change would upend a system that has kept certain people—and certain types of people—in power for many years, and that such persons generally aren’t quick to give up power. But it’s not as if people haven’t noticed. The activists I spoke to have worked tirelessly to expose the reality of how those with power use it in hopes of someday bringing about political change. The idea is getting people who legitimately care about the most vulnerable in the city into the positions currently occupied by those who patently don’t. It’s a work in progress. But the people doing that work have a better chance of doing the right thing and addressing the legitimate issues than the well-credentialed transplants and machine creatures who have traditionally held—and still mostly do hold—those roles.
How soon, and indeed if, that will happen is hard to know. What remains are the old myths, now as ever held up by those in power because it remains expedient for them to do so. Baltimore finally wants to punish Keith Smith, but that might be less because of the lie he told than because of how much cruel truth was embedded within it. He correctly identified that there is a hierarchy in Baltimore that defines who is worth what; he understood that there’s nothing anyone can say about the folks at the bottom that powerful people won’t believe. Smith was as dumb and vain as any criminal, but he understood that his city’s most powerful people believe these things, and also that those who become victims of this rhetoric have very little recourse. Smith might have murdered his wife; given the track record of the parties investigating him, he just might get away with it. If that happens, it will be because of what Smith understood when he set out to commit his crime—not just knowing what lies are most easily believed in Baltimore, but identifying who mattered and who didn’t, and where in the system elemental things like justice and truth mattered least.
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