Colorful court career comes to close Legendary pranks of clerk celebrated

June 28, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Have you heard the one about legendary courthouse character Roland "Judge" Baker and the magic wigs?

Seems Mr. Baker, a clerk who is retiring after two decades with a front row seat to the tragedies and comedies that unfold daily in Baltimore courtrooms, was assigned some years ago to a prostitution case. The prosecution evidence included a white wig and a blue hat.

The late Morris Kaplan, himself a courthouse legend, was the defense attorney. He responded by presenting a black wig with a white cap and demanding that they, too, be marked as evidence.

Soon, those in the courtroom rubbed their eyes in wonder. Those wigs looked as if they were moving slowly across the table.

"Finally, one of the jurors yelled: 'That wig's alive!' " So says William M. Monfried, then a city prosecutor.

Mr. Baker had attached threads to the wigs, allowing him to move them around the table.

Another version has it that the trial was being conducted without a jury, and it was Mr. Monfried who, upon reaching for one of the wigs to make a point in his summation, jumped when Mr. Baker yanked the hair away.

That's the way Mr. Baker recalls it, but neither he nor any of the others spinning yarns at his retirement roast were under oath.

About 150 judges, prosecutors, police detectives, defense lawyers and clerks showed up to salute Mr. Baker Thursday night at Martin's West. The crowd even included four jurors from an asbestos case handled by Mr. Baker.

"It's more like a reunion than a retirement party," said the guest of honor, surveying the turnout.

The guests told stories about the dean of Baltimore's courtroom clerks, who schooled rookie prosecutors on courtroom procedure -- and then pulled some pranks that have become part of legal community lore.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. said Mr. Baker, when unimpressed with a defendant, would tie hangman's nooses in the drawstrings of the window shades or wave an American flag while a defense lawyer outlined his client's stellar background.

"Let me put it this way," said Mr. Baker, who will retire when he turns 65 in August. "I've gotten away with a lot of things a lot of people wouldn't do, but only with certain judges."

Mr. Baker had put in 24 years as a supervisor at Hochschild-Kohn's downtown service building before his political activism led to a career change in 1969 when state Sen. Harry J. "Soft Shoes" McGuirk, the famed South Baltimore dispenser of patronage, got him a job as a sheriff's deputy at the courthouse.

He held that job from 1969 to 1971, then took a salary cut from $8,500 to $7,979 to become a courtroom clerk because it seemed more challenging.

He quickly got a taste of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction nature of big-city criminal courts. His first big case, he recalls, had the murderers going to the old Sears store on North Avenue to buy a steamer trunk in which to stuff the body, which was in a room at the Belvedere Hotel. When they got back to the hotel, they found the trunk was too small. So they returned the trunk to the store for a larger one.

Over the years, Mr. Baker has sat in on some of the more sensational trials in the city, such as that of infamous cop killer Flint Gregory Hunt, who had to be handcuffed and shackled throughout the proceedings. The murder trials were especially fascinating -- "I probably clerked in excess of 500 murder trials," Mr. Baker says -- but lately too many abused children were victims.

"I think those are the cases that get to me as a clerk and touch my emotions," Mr. Baker said.

So for the past few years he arranged to work mostly civil cases.

Mr. Baker is to retire in August but may work part-time as a clerk.

Still, his friends threw him a $30-a-head party and gave him and his wife, Joan, a Caribbean cruise. Then one of them told the best-Known Roland Baker story.

Go back to a trial in the mid-1970s, Baltimore Supreme Bench Judge Harry A. Cole presiding. Judge Cole, always interested in running an efficient court, could be counted on as the lunch hour approached to ask if there was a short witness.

On this day, Mr. Baker was ready."In my best Jackie Gleason fashion, I said, 'Do we have a short witness!' "

With that, in walked a midget.

Mr. Baker recalled: "When those 8-foot oak doors opened and a 3-foot man walked in, I said to Judge Cole, 'Is that short enough for you?' Harry Cole was nowhere to be seen. He was hiding under the bench, laughing."

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