Judge remembers a shootout that changed his life

DAN RODRICKS

November 07, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

During jury selection in the Dontay Carter murder trial, as in most trials in Baltimore Circuit Court, three out of four of the men and women in the courtroom stood when Judge John Prevas asked the question: Had any members of the jury pool, or any of their relatives, or "someone whose judgement you rely upon" been the victim of a crime, or a witness to a crime?

Prevas, a judge six years and before that a city prosecutor, is never surprised that up to three-quarters of prospective jurors come forward to whisper their stories across the bench. It's a fact of modern life. Crime is, in some way, a reality for millions, and a fear for the rest.

It can change a person's life forever -- as it did John Prevas'.

"We've had whole [juror] panels stand up," Prevas says. "I also ask if any of them, or their family members, have been investigated for, or charged with, or been convicted of a crime. There are, by far, more victims than criminals, but we've had lots of people, especially women, say, 'I've been robbed numerous times, and my son is in [the state prison at] Hagerstown.'"

"Can you still be fair?" Prevas always asks, and most of the jurors say they can.

Prevas believes them. It's a test he faces and passes every day he's on the bench.

The 20th anniversary of the night Prevas was shot arrived recently, and it was something he spoke of frequently as the date approached. Oddly, he even returned last week to the scene of the crime to reminisce.

It happened in the Essex Cafe, which is a neighborhood place in East Baltimore, near Patterson Park Avenue. Back in 1972, Prevas, whose family owned a popular food stand in the Broadway Market, was 25 years old, a year or so out of law school. He was working for the city state's attorney during the day, helping at the family business at night. On the last Friday in October, he closed shop, cleaned out the register and, after a few stops in Fells Point, stepped into the Essex for a beer.

"Packed like sardines," Prevas recalls. "Every seat was occupied. There were some longshoremen at a table playing cards. The bar was L-shaped. I was standing near the corner of it. We were talking politics. I was cajoling some guys, trying to get them to vote for McGovern. They were kind of conservative. It was a hard sell."

Though Prevas did not see them at the time, four men entered the bar from two different doors -- one with a revolver, one with a sawed-off shotgun, one with a handgun some witnesses took for a starter pistol, and one who was unarmed. The one with the shotgun positioned himself by the ice machine at the end of the bar.

"I'm standing there talking and this little guy puts his hand on my front left pocket, feeling for money," Prevas says. "At first I thought he was some impudent shoeshine boy. I pushed him and released. And then I hear someone yell, 'This is it!' "

The bartender dropped to the floor. The men and women at the bar turned. They all saw the guns -- and the three desperate men who held them.

One of the customers in the Essex was an off-duty city cop. He rose from his stool with a gun and fired. One of the gunmen fired back, wounding the cop in the upper body. A blast from the shotgun filled the room. The bandits ran into the street. Next thing Prevas knew, the right sleeve of his Oxford shirt was covered with blood. The blast from the shotgun had hit him.

He survived. So did the cop. The four men got away. The shooting made big Saturday headlines 20 years ago. Prevas has never talked about it much. Nor did he campaign as a "crime victim's judge." In fact, he once testified against certain victim-rights legislation in Annapolis. Why pull back the sleeve to show an old wound now? Why go back to the Essex?

Because the shooting was a turning point in John Prevas' life.

"I'm sure I would have gone into private practice had it not been for that," he says. "I didn't go into the military, so this was sort of my own personal combat experience. It was an important moment in my life. It gave me greater empathy with crime victims. Before I was shot, I had viewed trials and court procedure as dry academic matters. I guess once I had my own brush with crime, I had a more realistic appreciation of what

people were going through."

Prevas had a successful career as a prosecutor of drug dealers. He became a judge in 1986. He is respected as tough, fair and hard-working. He serves the system well in Baltimore.

He goes back to the event frequently, especially as the years pass.

"An inch, a foot either way, . . ." he says softly, remembering the blood on his sleeve and how he felt the instant he realized he was the luckiest man still alive, Oct. 20, 1972.

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