Retiring judge once barely avoided jail

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 18, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They put Judge Joseph Howard's portrait on a wall in the U.S. Courthouse here last week, but maybe they should have put it on Harford Avenue in 1958 and sarcastically called it, "Welcome to Baltimore."

It was his first hour in this city. With less luck and less justice, he might have spent his second hour behind bars. He'd driven this battered station wagon here from Des Moines, Iowa, stuffed with everything he owned, and he was looking for his brother's house at 1017 Bonaparte St.

Utterly lost, circling Harford Avenue for the third or fourth time, frustrated, Howard found himself stopped by two white police officers who ordered him out of his car.

"You've been driving this wreck around these streets for three months," one officer charges. "When the hell are you gonna get a Maryland license?"

Howard boils and says something caustic. The cop takes offense. In a moment, the two are locked in physical struggle, which Howard is winning by virtue of sheer size.

Suddenly, the second cop breaks it up. "Stop it, John," he shouts at his partner. "You're wrong. Just let him go."

And Joe Howard, who might have been on his way to jail, is instead allowed to pursue the rest of his life: as a city prosecutor, as a Supreme Bench judge, and as a federal judge who declared last week, at age 69, that it was time to "slow down" as he became a senior judge -- where he'll assume a lightened caseload -- and watched them hang his portrait in an honored spot at the federal courthouse.

Such are the whims of fate, though, that everything could have turned in that flash of a moment on Harford Avenue 34 years ago -- a moment that, years after it happened, never left Howard's memory.

"It would have destroyed my whole career before it started," he said. He was sitting in his old Supreme Bench chambers above St. Paul Place, some years back, and Howard was weighing not only his own life but, implicitly, a history of racial edginess in this country.

"If that one white policeman hadn't been honest, they would have pulled me in," he said. "I would have been taken to District Court; the police would have given a false story; and the judge would have rejected my denial. The judge would have said, 'I'm sure this officer wouldn't lie,' and I would have been found guilty of something. That's the usual procedure.' "

All through his career, some would have said: "That's Joe Howard talking with a chip on his shoulder."

Always, he's led with his instincts, with his nerve endings exposed. Always, he's heard charges of playing the race card. Invariably, though, he's backed up his instincts with painful facts.

A quarter-century ago, as an assistant state's attorney, Howard charged there was a double standard in rape cases: tough sentences for blacks who raped white women, a shrug of the shoulders for whites who raped black women.

Cries of outrage were heard from judges across the state who heard his words. Prove it, they said. A year later, he did. A 32-page report with 15 statistical charts showed a clear pattern of heavy sentences against black rapists and light sentences to white rapists.

When he was appointed to a Supreme Bench judgeship a few years later, one worried sitting judge whispered that Howard might turn the swearing-in into a black power conference. Howard laughed ruefully when he heard about the remark. But, by 1975, he was hammering at a court system that had historically denied jobs to blacks and women. And throughout the courthouse, there were officials looking into mirrors and seeing guilty faces look back.

Howard's race-consciousness comes from a lifetime of feeling like an outsider. His mother was a Sioux, his father an African-American who was friends with Dr. Ralph Bunche, United Nations undersecretary general. Howard remembers accompanying his father and Dr. Bunche as they left the U.N. Building and took a New York City subway. Charles R. Howard rose to give his seat to a white woman. The woman sat down next to Bunche, took note of his skin color, and immediately got up and walked away.

Dr. Bunche looked sadly at his friends. "When I get out of the UN and take public transportation," he said, "I'm just another nigger."

And yet, given that history, Howard has sometimes seemed inordinately sensitive to white defendants. He decried police who seemed particularly tough on white political protesters.

He worried about sending white defendants into prisons where they'd be racially outnumbered and vulnerable to attack.

Through the years, Joseph Howard became a kind of lightning rod for attacks: some of it based on preconceptions of a black man in a white man's traditional positions, some of it based on language aimed at undoing generations of legal unfairness, much of it a microcosm of America's ongoing sensitivity between blacks and whites. And all of it coming after a moment on `D Harford Avenue 34 years ago, in his first hour in Baltimore, when one white city cop with a sense of fairness helped change a man's fate -- and a judicial system's.

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