Zany moments in the career of Judge Johnson

DAN RODRICKS

September 11, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Unusual, bizarre, tragic -- three little words to describe the case of one Michael Williams, who had the misfortune of being pulled from the relative peace of his prison cell to the courtroom of Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Johnson on Oct. 16, 1992.

Those are adjectives the Maryland Court of Special Appeals used recently -- in a heretofore unreported opinion -- to describe what happened to this fellow Williams who, as you will see, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, waving his finger in the air.

"Arbitrary and oppressive" is what the appellate court said of the judge's snap decisions to cite Williams numerous times for criminal contempt.

Interestingly, the same court said pretty much the same thing about the same judge's strange handling of another case several years back.

In that case, Johnson had ordered defense attorney Jay Liner handcuffed, locked up and fined simply because he didn't sit when told to.

"Absolutely without foundation" was what the Court of Special Appeals said of the criminal contempt charge against Liner. "A judge may, and should, be firm; but he or she is not entitled to be a tyrant."

That was in 1985.

Now we've got the Michael Williams case.

Let's go back to Oct. 16, 1992.

Michael Williams is due to appear as a criminal defendant in Baltimore Circuit Court, Part 17, Johnson presiding.

According to court documents available to all assembled, Michael Williams is white, 23 years old.

Prison officials deliver to court a Michael Williams who's black, 31 years old.

"This is not the Michael Williams you want on this case," Gary Schenker, the veteran prosecutor, tells Judge Johnson at the outset. "I know Mr. Williams and, as far as I can point out by the description on the sheet, he is not a white male and, two, he has been in the Division of Correction for the last five or six years that I know of."

Schenker knows what he's talking about. In fact, he has twice prosecuted and twice secured convictions against Michael Williams -- the black, 31-year-old Michael Williams -- for assault and handgun charges. By October 1992, Michael Williams has been in prison at least five years.

Schenker's statement is nice and clear. It should end the matter, right? The wrong Michael Williams is in court, right? Someone goofed.

But the judge isn't satisfied. Johnson presses on, ending up with this Michael Williams in one of the zaniest colloquies I've ever heard in court or read in a transcript.

It starts when Johnson insists that Williams take an oath to answer a question about his date of birth, even though that question is, given Schenker's statement, irrelevant.

Williams, known to prosecutors and other judges as a courtroom troublemaker, refuses to swear an oath and keeps giving the judge the finger -- if not his middle finger (neither the record nor the judge are clear on this detail) then a finger, nonetheless, and the judge takes it as disrespect. (Williams later claimed to the Court of Special Appeals that he had been shot in the upper right arm in 1986 and had had difficulty raising his right hand ever since.)

Each time Williams either refuses to raise his right hand or raises only a finger, Johnson cites him for contempt.

Johnson: "I can't take your word for it. I want you under oath."

Williams: "Well, I am not a white male for one thing. That's a fact.

Johnson: "I don't know what you are."

Williams: "I heard that."

Johnson: "I want to know. . ."

Williams: "If you want to keep on going through this little charade, we can keep on going through that little charade. . . . Keep on mumbling and humming."

Johnson: "You are not going to take the oath?"

Williams: "What is you, hard of hearing?"

Johnson: "Contempt of court. The sentence is five months and 29 days consecutive to the other three contempt items that I have given you, and consecutive to any time that has been imposed and not yet served."

At another point, Johnson tells Williams: "All right, give me the finger. Raise the finger again and that will be sufficient, take the oath with the finger."

When Williams curses, Johnson again cites him for contempt.

By the time it's over, Williams has been found guilty of six separate charges of contempt and Johnson has sentenced him to an additional two years, 11 months and 29 days.

All this for a guy who shouldn't even have been in court!

This past July, with no public notice, the Court of Special Appeals blasted Johnson and reversed his judgments. It again called his use of contempt an abuse of power.

Yesterday, the judge blasted back. He said that, in both the Liner case and the more recent Williams case, he had been treated unfairly by the appeals court. In particular, Johnson claimed a member has held a grudge against him for many years.

"It has to do with race," said Johnson, who is black. He claimed that the Court of Special Appeals would not have ruled against him "in the event I was not an African-American judge."

Great. When in doubt, play the ole race card.

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