Respected Criminal Prosecutor Resigns

Respected Criminal Prosecutor Resigns

Prince George Journal – 1/3/1996 – By Timothy W. Maier

The “Minute Man” has called it quits. James Neil Papirmeister, a 37 year old prosecutor with the State’s Attorney’s Office known for his ability to persuade juries to convict violent criminals in minutes, will join Joseph Vallario Jr.’s law firm this week. “It’s a chance to grow with his firm or become a private practitioner in my own right,” said Papirmeister, whose peers dubbed him the “Minute Man” when juries frequently returned with guilty verdicts minutes after beginning deliberations.

A nine-year prosecutor with the State’s Attorney’s Office, Papirmeister has tried more than 100 Circuit Court cases and obtained convictions in more than 80 percent of the 41 murder cases he has tried. Papirmeister, who will be roasted tomorrow at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, put away 33 murderers in successful court cases and was able to obtain about 60 guilty pleas in other cases before trials began.

Papirmeister resigned shortly after being assigned the Tatia Brennan murder case. Brennan was a 14-year-old victim of a gang-related killing involving at least four members of the “Bloods”, a Los Angeles gang that has infiltrated Suitland High School. Four gang members were charged in the killing.

“The biggest hesitation about leaving this office is being assigned to this gang case, ” Papirmeister said. “It tells the story of these middle class high school kids who single-handedly land in the justice system. It shows how peer pressure and how gangs operate,. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”

But Papirmeister, the second experienced prosecutor to leave the office within a month, said the offer was too good to pass up. Laura Gwinn resigned last month to work for the County Attorney’s office after handling more than 70 murder cases in her 12 years as a prosecutor. Dwight Jackson, another homicide prosecutor, quit last year after an unsuccessful bid to become state’s attorney.

Cpl. Ken O’Berry, a homicide detective who worked with Papirmeister on numerous cases, characterized him as a hard worker who helped police bring strong cases to trial. “He was a stickler for details,” O’Berry said. “We had a good team with Papirmeister and Laura Gwinn and now they’re gone.”

State’s Attorney Jack Johnson said Papirmeister’s resignation has prompted him to redesign the homicide unit, created under former State’s Attorney Alexander Williams nearly six years ago, which for years has relied on about four experienced attorneys to prosecute all the county’s murder cases. Instead of relying on just four of the state’s attorney’s 54 lawyers to prosecute murder cases, Johnson will begin rotating prosecutors from other departments to help handle homicides.

“Out of 54 lawyers it makes no sense having four doing all the homicide cases, “said Johnson. “We are going to bring other people in to do cases and in the long term it will enhance the office.”

When Gwinn quit, Johnson warned the office would be in serious trouble if Papirmeister or the only remaining veteran prosecutor, William Manico, resigned. That time has come.

Some judges have called the recent resignations a windfall for defense attorneys who now will do courtroom battle with prosecutors who have very little, or no, experience handling insanity defenses and death penalty cases.

“Whenever you lose top flight prosecutors there is always a period where there is a vacuum,” said defense attorney Robert Bonsib, a former prosecutor who helped hire Papirmeister. “They will regroup and new people will get the experience. But it hurts for a while.”

Circuit Judge Graydon S. McKee said it’s difficult to replace someone with the experience of Papirmeister.

“He was very professional and very thorough and an extremely competent prosecutor,” McKee said. “That type of experience can only be replaced by other people with experience. They are hard to find.”

Manico said losing Papirmeister is a tough blow for the office.

“In the 10 years that I have worked in the State’s Attorney’s Office I can think of few prosecutors that have been as dedicated and as effective in serving the public interest and victims of criminal activity as James Papirmeister,” Manico said.

“He frequently labored for long hours at great personal sacrifice to bring criminals to justice. He is a first-rate trial attorney who will be greatly missed by this office,” he added.

Johnson, who said he needs about $800,000 more in his budget to retain veteran prosecutors and hire experienced lawyers, said this is one more example of why his budget needs to be increased.

“Jim was a very able prosecutor who did a good job,” Johnson said. “He was very successful in the courtroom. But it shows until I can get the salary level up I’m not able to keep experienced prosecutors.”

Last week, Papirmeister said money had nothing to do with his decision to leave as he reviewed newspaper clippings about successful trials in his office decorated with pictures of his young son and his wife. He had been promised a significant raise, if he stayed, he said.

He also denied that an internal power battle with some of his superiors led to his resignation, which some attorneys suggested was a factor. The only way he would stay was to be promoted to deputy state’s attorney, which is not going to happen, he said.

Instead, he explained with a chuckle, “It is time, Grasshopper.”

Johnson also suggested a high profile case in which the victim’s family verbally berated Papirmeister for not telling them all the details of a plea deal may have had some influence on his decision to move on at this point.

In that case, Madeline Calloway, whose son was killed, claimed she was not aware that her son’s killer would serve only a few months in jail under a plea offer for a manslaughter conviction. She filed a complaint against Papirmeister.

Papirmeister shrugged that off as a determining factor. Speaking for the first time about that case, he said it was the right deal under the circumstances because the victim had gone into the shooters apartment to collect on a drug debt and attacked him with a knife.

“That was one stone-cold loser,” Papirmeister said. “I got that boy locked up. It was not a murder case. It never had murder written on it. I indicted him for murder only for strategic reasons..”

Part of the reasons he never told Calloway about the entire deal was because her family had attacked their son’s killer outside the courtroom and Papirmeister feared it could happen again, law enforcement sources said.

But some attorneys point to the Calloway case as an example of how Papirmeister was able to use trial and life experiences to come up with a fair deal.

Fred Joseph, the defense attorney in that case who has squared-off against Papirmeister in several murder cases, praised the veteran prosecutor for making sound ethical decisions.

“Every case I had with Jim has been hard fought,” Joseph said. “I find him to be a professional, a real pro from beginning to end. I can remember when I first met James Papirmeister he was quizzing a jury on how he could do better as a lawyer. I have always been impressed with him.”

The only criticism some lawyers will levy against Papirmeister is he is sometimes slow in providing discovery to defense attorneys. Discovery is evidence by law that must be turned over to the defense, especially if it is favorable to the defendant. Papirmeister acknowledged that sometimes has happened but only because he has tried to protect witnesses from being intimidated or threatened by suspects.

“Oh, I never had any problem with discovery with Jim,” added Joseph with a laugh. “Of course he knew all my clients were innocent so he didn’t have a problem turning over information to me.”

Papirmeister, who earned his law degree at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, is a native of Maryland. His father was born in Berlin in 1925 and escaped at age 14 to the United States during World War II. He became a leading expert on mustard gas. His father’s ordeal was captured in the book “Coming of Age in the Third Reich” that centered upon a Jewish community fleeing Berlin.

One of three children, Papirmeister said despite his admitted shyness, he chose to pursue a law degree because it was a way to have a professional career. He is an avid golfer who has won local club championships and has become somewhat of a Beadles fanatic, who knows the “Fab Four’s” hot line number by heart as well as every trivia detail about the Liverpool rock band.

Bit it’s the courtroom where Papirmeister excelled. He has been in the spotlight in some of the biggest and most dramatic cases in Prince George’s County.

There was the case in which the chief prosecution witness said the witness’ help the ghost of a murdered woman sought the witness’ help in avenging her death. Papirmeister eventually dropped the charges. “Hey, that could still be prosecuted,” Papirmeister said.

Papirmeister also successfully prosecuted “Billy the Kid,” who jury found guilty of killing two campers within two minutes of beginning deliberations. One of the victim’s mothers hugged Papirmeister daily during the trial.

In another case, the jury took six minutes to convict a man of felony murder for executing a county resident in front of his family that had been taken hostage.

Then there was the murder case a few years ago when in typical Papirmeister fashion he presented numerous witnesses, four confessions and a video tape confession just to make sure the jury understood who killed whom, Ninety minutes later: guilty, guilty, guilty.

But the case that Papirmeister may be remembered most for, is the one he didn’t pursue. Papirmeister opted not to pursue a grand jury indictment against Jeffrey Curtis Gilbert, the Lanham man whom was severely beaten during his arrest in the slaying of Cpl. John Novabilski.

Gilbert was later cleared when Ralph McLean emerged as the likely killer. Police found the murder weapon and the officer’s stolen duty gun on McLean’s body when he killed himself in a Memorial Day shootout with police. Papirmeister dropped the charges against Gilbert a few days later despite three witnesses implicating Gilbert as the cop killer.

“People were pressuring me to get an indictment,” Papirmeister said. “But afterwards Jack personally thanked me.”

“I believe in very extensive use of the grand jury.” Papirmeister said in reflecting about out the Gilbert case and noting they had interviewed 30 witnesses before the first preliminary hearing date.

He said he learned from the case that witnesses identification is not infallible and that it is important for prosecutor’s to “flush out it’s investigation to its maximum extent.”

His thoughts on Gilbert today: “I really don’t know if he did it,” Papirmeister said. “I have grave doubts about his guilt despite the identification.”

Sending an innocent person to prison is something Papirmeister said troubles him deeply. In all cases he has tried, he said there was one time when he was bothered by his theory of the case. After the trial he expressed his concern to the defense attorney, who responded, “You got the right guy.”

Maureen Lamasney, chief of the public defenders office, said Papirmeister’s general concern of making sure justice is served is beyond reproach. “Jim was outstanding,” “Jim was outstanding,” she said. “I have been here 20 years and he is one of the best ever. He is fair and honest.”

Roberta Roper, the president of the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, a victim’s advocacy group, praised Papirmeister for his zeal in pursuing life without parole sentences. He is one of the few prosecutors who had consistently filed life without parole petitions – a tedious amount of paperwork that is required under state law.

The roper committee has pushed for prosecutors to file life without parole sentences but prosecutors privately have said it hasn’t always been done because it is time consuming on schedules that are jam packed with trials.

In the past 15 months Papirmeister has successfully persuaded judges to sentence seven killers to life without parole – one of the more satisfying gifts that he said he can give to victims families.

“I commend Jim, Roper said. “He is a strong, aggressive prosecutor and understands victim’s sensitivity needs. I wish him well. I think his leaving is a real loss to the office and citizens of Prince George’s County.”