Helen Delich Bentley, the 5-foot-2-inch Republican congresswoman who once campaigned as "The Fighting Lady," sat quietly yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court as an Owings Mills process server accused her of trying to choke him.
John Edward Burns, 42, a 220-pound private process server and former Baltimore policeman, testified that Mrs. Bentley choked him June 1, 1990, in a hallway outside her Towson office, after he refused to take back a subpoena he had just served her.
"She went and grabbed me, with both of her hands around my neck," Mr. Burns testified on the first day of a trial on civil charges he levied against Mrs. Bentley in county Circuit Court in Towson.
"She just said, 'How do you like it?' and she was choking me," Mr. Burns said.
Mrs. Bentley's receptionist, Jimette A. Thanos, 44, directly contradicted Mr. Burns.
She testified that she saw the entire confrontation and that Mrs. Bentley never touched Mr. Burns.
The civil trial is being heard by a jury of eight women and four men. Mrs. Bentley has filed a cross-complaint against Mr. Burns, charging him with assault for allegedly screaming profanities at her during the incident, putting her in fear of being struck.
Mrs. Bentley's attorney, Kathleen Cox, also called four other witnesses who said they heard Mr. Burns screaming profanities vTC at Mrs. Bentley but did not see any physical contact.
The trial could conclude today, according to Judge J. William Hinkel.
Mr. Burns, a licensed private investigator, yesterday gave a version of the confrontation that dovetailed with a criminal complaint he filed against Mrs. Bentley minutes after the incident.
Those criminal charges of assault and battery were dropped in July of 1990, when an assistant state's attorney told a judge there were too many "credibility problems" to prosecute the case.
Mr. Burns, a burly man with a ruddy complexion, reacted loudly and emotionally under cross-examination from Mrs. Cox.
Earlier, two police officers called by Mr. Burns' attorney, Stanley Kantor, testified under cross-examination that they repeatedly asked Mr. Burns to stop rubbing his neck, because he could be making a mark on it that wasn't there before.
Sgt. Janet L. Stabile, who took photographs of the apparent redness on Mr. Burns' neck about 90 minutes after the incident, said she saw him at the District Court commissioner's office, writing out a complaint against Mrs. Bentley with one hand while rubbing his neck with the other.
Officer Charles Edenfield, the first officer on the scene, also said he asked Mr. Burns to stop rubbing his neck.
"He's lying!" Mr. Burns practically yelled, when asked under cross-examination if Officer Edenfield had, in fact, asked him to stop rubbing his neck.
Mr. Burns reacted angrily when Mrs. Cox asked him why, if he was being choked, he didn't cry out for help or push Mrs. Bentley away.
"You know what kind of power this lady has!" Mr. Burns answered, loudly. "You weren't born yesterday."
At the time of the alleged assault, Mr. Burns was attempting to serve Mrs. Bentley with a subpoena to testify at the second murder trial of Stanley M. Kosmas, 53.
Kosmas was convicted in February 1987 of killing his wife, Marialane, 40, but that conviction was overturned on appeal and a retrial was pending at the time of the Burns-Bentley confrontation.
Since that time, Kosmas has been convicted of second-degree murder in the strangulation death of his wife.
Kosmas is serving a 20-year prison sentence, according to an assistant state's attorney.
Mr. Burns, who has worked on Kosmas' case since his first trial, testified yesterday that he has become close friends with Kosmas and believed in his innocence.
Mrs. Bentley, who never actually testified at the Kosmas murder trial, was subpoenaed because Mr. Burns believed that somehow she had influenced the original prosecution, Mr. Burns testified yesterday.