One man's day in Baltimore District Court

DAN RODRICKS

September 07, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS News intern Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this column.

The bailiff in the blue blazer pushed open the courtroom door, stuck his head through and announced the end of recess.

"Show time," he said, nodding toward the prosecutors, public defenders, cops and, behind them, the gallery of defendants, relatives of defendants, victims, the relatives of victims, gawkers and the relatives of gawkers. It was about 10:30 a.m. Baltimore District Court Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt slid back into her chair behind the bench.

"Bring in Mr. Berger please," someone said.

"Mr. Berger," someone else called his name.

A little man in long, baggy chinos and a wrinkled white shirt shuffled up front. He was a nobby bag of bones. His hair and beard were twisted into peanut-size knots. He appeared to be in his early 50s; he could have been 10 years younger.

Mr. Berger faced a charge of assault. We never got to know the details because, early in the proceedings, the prosecutor said the words: "However, your honor, Mr. Berger is intoxicated at this time."

4 All eyes went to either Mr. Berger or the judge.

Mr. Berger looked toward the prosecutor, his face crumpled into a disbelieving frown, as if he had just been betrayed by an old friend.

Then he pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his pants with such force the loose-fitting chinos looked as though they might slide to the floor. The little man gathered up something and handed it to the bailiff.

It was a small brown bottle.

"I'm an epileptic," Mr. Berger said. "I take medicine for epilepsy."

He opened a fist and handed a crumpled white paper to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge. It was a note from someone saying Mr. Berger could not drive. The judge said nothing.

The little man stood with his hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth, the heels of his dress shoes grinding against the ragged cuffs of his pants.

There was silence in the courtroom and you got the idea of all present trying to get a sense of aromas in the air, as if to verify what the prosecutor had just said about Mr. Berger.

He could not hold himself steady. He kept rocking on his heels. He kept looking at the prosecutor with this odd speech-stifling shock.

"I didn't do it," Mr. Berger chanted. "I didn't do it. I didn't do it."

"Mr. Berger, please," the judge said.

The little man dropped his head and locked his hands behind his back.

"I'm going to set bail at fifteen-thousand," the judge said, and Mr. Berger squinted at the judge, as if she were the sun and her rays hurt his eyes.

The bailiff motioned for Mr. Berger to sit in a chair beside the defense table.

Shoulders hunched, head bowed, he shuffled past the defense table. Past the public defender sitting on the corner of the front bench of the gallery. He turned the corner. He headed for the rear courtroom door.

Suddenly, a chesty bail bondsman, in court for another matter, rose from the gallery and pushed Mr. Berger back into the pursuing bailiff's arms.

"You wrong. You wrong," Mr. Berger shouted, pointing his finger at the judge. "I got rights too, ya' know. You wrong!"

The bailiff made him sit in a chair against the wall. Mr. Berger hunched up and started to cry. It was the pathetic drunk's cry.

"You wrong," he sniffled. "You wrong."

The bailiff motioned for Mr. Berger to stand and walk through a side door, a dark brown thing with a heavy metal lock, to a holding cell.

"Get off me," Mr. Berger snapped. "I have rights, too. This is wrong."

Now two Baltimore city police officers stood, moved across the courtroom, grabbed Mr. Berger under his arms and lifted him through the side door.

"You wrong," he cried, his voice now echoing in the yellow hall of cells. His repeated cry could be heard through the thick door after it closed behind him.

The metal lock fell back into place.

For the next hour or so, each time the door opened, you could hear Mr. Berger, still sobbing, still yelling. "You wrong. You wroooonnnngggg!"

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