Treatment at courthouse angers Arundel attorney Black lawyer wants clerks fired

October 31, 1993|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

Keith Gross, the only black public defender in Anne Arundel County, has been left fuming by recent ugly incidents at the courthouse that he sees as racial -- and is also angered by the handling of his complaints.

Mr. Gross said one clerk used a racial slur when she described his behavior during a trial and another said she "should slap you across the head."

The clerk accused of using the racial slur was suspended for threedays without pay, courthouse sources have said.

Mr. Gross wants both clerks fired.

"I consider this an insult, the way this was handled," he said. "We still have this terrible problem in this courthouse, and nothing's been done about it."

It only confirms what many blacks believe, he said -- that such incidents are treated with tacit acceptance by those who run the justice system.

He's written to Robert C. Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, and to Mary McNally Rose, county clerk of the court, to complain.

He also said he plans to file a complaint with the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

Mr. Gross, 35, grew up near Clay and West Washington streets, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Annapolis. He graduated near the top of his class at Annapolis High School and from the Naval Academy.

Alleged racial slurs

He served as a captain in the Marines, then went to Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles on the GI Bill. He returned to Annapolis three years ago to work as a public defender.

Mr. Gross said that in August, a file clerk told him, "I should slap you across the head" when he failed to attach paper clips to pages of a court file he needed copied. Mr. Gross said she is the same clerk who referred to him as "the neighborhood rapist" as he walked past her two years ago.

Mr. Gross said that in September, another clerk used the racial slur in a conversation in her third-floor office. Mr. Gross said a black clerk overheard the remark and reported it to him.

Mr. Gross reported the incidents to Mrs. Rose, demanding in separate letters after each incident that the clerks be fired.

Mrs. Rose referred the matter to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which investigated.

In letters to Mr. Gross, the investigator concluded that the "slap across the head" comment was inappropriate, but not racially motivated. The investigator also said the office was unable to confirm that the "neighborhood rapist" comment ever was made.

The clerks refused to comment and referred questions to their lawyers, who also refused to discuss the matter.

'I'm sorry that it happened'

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rose has told supervisory personnel to brief workers on the need to be as professional, courteous and sensitive as possible in dealing with the public. She also circulated a memo as a reminder.

"I'm sorry that it happened on my watch, and with my team," she said.

While Mr. Gross has complained that the investigator talked to him only once, for five minutes, Judge Murphy argued that the investigation was thoroughly conducted.

"We don't take this kind of thing lightly, believe me," Judge Murphy said. "This kind of conduct is more repulsive to me and to the people who work here than you can imagine."

He said court personnel policies say an employee can be fired for "wantonly offensive" racial comments.

Michael Enright, a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general, said that a state prison guard was fired in 1984 for circulating a racially offensive cartoon in a state prison. The dismissal was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Mr. Gross is adamant that the clerks be fired.

"I find this conduct totally outrageous, and the tacit acceptance of it by the powers-that-be makes it all the worse," he said.

Kirk Crowley, a black former assistant state's attorney now in private practice, said he never experienced any similar incidents when he worked as a prosecutor from 1988 to 1991. He said he often felt that some judges and police officers questioned his competence and his willingness to prosecute black defendants, but that no one called him names.

"It was never anything blatant or outward in any way, but you knew it was there," Mr. Crowley said.

Hire more minorities

Others deny that Anne Arundel's courthouse environment is hostile to minorities.

William H. Murphy Jr., a prominent black defense lawyer in Baltimore and former Baltimore Circuit Court judge, praised the racial sensitivity demonstrated by judges and prosecutors in the county.

"All of my dealings there have been extremely positive," he said. "I haven't heard a single complaint about anything to do with race or gender bias in years down there."

His only complaint is that the court clerk's office should hire more minorities.

Mrs. Rose said that six of the 15 clerks she has hired since taking office in December 1990 are black.

L Eleven of the courthouse's 87 full-time employees are black.

But Mr. Gross is unimpressed by the compliments of others.

"The message to those two women is that it's OK, it's all right what they did," he said. "They can do this and get away with it, and that's not right."

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