Lawyer doesn't relish the spotlight

January 21, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

John Deros can't even go to the doctor for a routine physical without being asked, "How can you do that?"

As in: How can you defend Dontay Carter?

To Mr. Deros, a nine-year veteran of the public defender's office who is no fan of the bright spotlight that has been aimed on the Carter case, representing a convicted murderer such as Dontay Carter is no different than representing any other defendant. In his mind it's his job. An honorable one at that.

"Really," he said yesterday while preparing documents to be submitted as evidence when Carter's latest kidnapping trial resumes, "a case is a case, in my view."

But that's not exactly true -- and he knows it. With three sets of charges stemming from three abductions and one murder, with credit card receipts generated by spending sprees, with contested confessions and a defiant defendant, the Carter case is the most complex he and colleague Jonathan Van Hoven have ever handled.

And, despite previously serving as defense attorney in two death penalty cases, he's never been involved in such a highly publicized case. He says he can't understand why the abductions laid to Carter were selected for headline treatment from the all-too-plentiful variety of Baltimore street violence, but a few minutes later he acknowledges: "It's different because I think it's perceived Dontay Carter is striking out at white middle-class America and I think that creates problems for people."

Anyone watching Mr. Deros in court would not be surprised to hear that ballyhoo is not his bag. A newspaper account of his and another public defender's defense of a man who received life without parole for killing a 55-year-old baby sitter while children slept undisturbed read: "They conceded nothing and argued every legal point to a standstill."

The same could be said for his and Mr. Van Hoven's defense of Carter in the monthlong trial that ended with the East Baltimore teen-ager's conviction for first-degree murder.

"I'm not a crusader at all," said Mr. Deros, 38. "You do the case. Get your version of the facts in, try to keep as much of the state's case out as you can and attack on all fronts."

It's a methodical, reasoned approach to trial-by-jury. Mr. Deros' idea of courtroom histrionics is to occasionally look at the jury and talk louder when asking a particularly important question.

This is a man whose lifestyle seems centered on the law. He hopes to eventually explore the civil side of the law. His wife is a medical malpractice lawyer. "We don't have kids. There's a lot of law talk," he said.

It was a Thursday, six days after Carter's arrest last February, when district Public Defender Joy Phillips assigned Mr. Deros the case. He says the major cases are rotated among lawyers in the agency's felony division, and it was his turn.

He'd read the newspaper articles, he'd read the charging documents. He met with Carter on a Saturday morning at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

"My thoughts were, 'My God he's young!' Mr. Deros recalled. "I found him to be extremely bright and articulate, in spite of all the things you good folks in the media have felt the need to write about him. We've enjoyed a good attorney-client relationship."

Yesterday morning Dontay Carter was back behind bars and Mr. Deros and Mr. Van Hoven were back in the courtroom. The trial, scheduled to resume today, was in recess but the two defense lawyers were applying small pieces of tape to documents so they could be properly presented as evidence. Scut work. Later, they spent about two hours with Carter at the Supermax prison.

They said they had not had any indication that their client was going to escape Monday, and both said they were as relieved as anyone when he later was taken back into custody without incident.

Rising once again to defend Carter against what he considers an unwarranted image, Mr. Van Hoven noted Carter's meek behavior upon being arrested and added: "From our point of view, that is Dontay Carter. The image out there is he's some kind of of scheming sociopath."

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