A distraught McLean is taken from courtroom

June 09, 1994|By Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich | Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Baltimore Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean emerged from months of seclusion yesterday for her first court appearance on fraud and misconduct charges, but the pretrial hearing was interrupted dramatically when she began shaking and gasping uncontrollably in her seat.

While a court clerk continued to swear in her psychiatrist as a witness, Mrs. McLean's lawyer dashed toward Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe and pleaded for help.

"Let him attend to his patient," shouted lawyer William H. Murphy Jr., gesturing toward the psychiatrist. "She needs him now."

Within seconds, a drawn and unsteady Mrs. McLean was ushered from the courtroom and spent the next 2 1/2 hours in a vacant jury room.

She returned to the courtroom briefly in the afternoon before being taken back to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, where she has been under psychiatric care for depression. Her lawyers said she was heavily sedated.

The 50-year-old comptroller has been charged with stealing more than $25,000 in public funds and with trying to arrange for a $1 million city lease of the former headquarters of her travel agency.

Mrs. McLean's trial did not start yesterday because her principal lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, was in court in Montgomery County.

There was no shortage of legal maneuvering and heated rhetoric, however, as Mr. Murphy sought a postponement in the trial and demanded that Judge Bothe disqualify herself from the case. Neither issue was resolved.

The woman who appeared in court yesterday was barely recognizable as the politician who presided over the city government's most powerful board half a year ago.

Her political career unraveled over the winter amid allegations that she had sent checks to a fictitious employee and a nonexistent women's organization.

In January, Mrs. McLean was admitted to Sheppard Pratt for psychiatric treatment as a grand jury considered the case against her. Two months after her indictment, on the night of April 14, she attempted suicide with a near-fatal overdose of anti-depressant drugs and alcohol.

Mrs. McLean had prided herself on her business success and wrapped herself in its symbols, wearing expensive suits and fine jewelry. Yesterday, she stumbled into court in a loose, white T-shirt and baggy pants.

As her lawyer argued with the judge, Mrs. McLean slumped in her chair and wearily leaned her head against her hand. She stared down listlessly -- in sharp contrast to her last public appearance, in late December, when she defiantly looked into the television camera lights and said allegations about her were disrupting the city's business.

At that Dec. 20 news conference at her lawyers' offices, Mrs. McLean defended her record in a loud, clear voice. She charged that news media scrutiny had obscured more pressing issues, including reducing property taxes and slashing the unemployment rate among blacks.

Yesterday, she barely spoke above a whisper. Most of the day, she appeared distraught and shaken, often wiping away tears.

She arrived at the courthouse about 8:20 a.m. and retreated into a locked conference room. Her husband, James, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Dennis Kutzer, stayed by her side until the judge ordered a sheriff to bring her into the courtroom.

Mr. Murphy objected, saying he would fetch Mrs. McLean. The exchange marked the beginning of lengthy bickering between Mr. Murphy and Judge Bothe.

The lawyer argued strenuously with the judge over whether she was basing her decisions on what she had read in the newspaper.

His request for 10 minutes to talk with Dr. Kutzer provoked a sharp debate. And he complained that the judge already had decided some issues in the case.

"I want you to be the judge. I don't want you to be the pre-judge," Mr. Murphy said. At another point, he drew laughter in the courtroom when he said the judge wasn't giving him enough time to consult with Mrs. McLean's psychiatrist.

"What's the rush?" Mr. Murphy asked the judge. "I've checked your schedule, and I know you're not busy today."

In asking the judge to step down from the case, Mr. Murphy said she had a record of injecting herself into trials by asking inappropriate questions. He also said she had displayed "hostility toward counsel" in cases.

"Please, Mr. Murphy, don't try me," Judge Bothe said. "I really and sincerely have no conceivable idea why the defense thinks I should recuse myself in this case."

Mrs. McLean could still press that demand with another judge.

The other key issue -- whether Mrs. McLean's mental illness warrants a postponement in the trial -- also was left unresolved at the end of the hearing.

Another judge had ruled two days earlier that the comptroller was competent to stand trial. But Mr. Murphy said yesterday that JTC "Mrs. McLean has been so set back by events leading up to trial and what has happened today, she is not in a position to proceed without grave risk to her mental health."

Judge Bothe said she would reconsider the competency issue, but only if Mrs. McLean agreed to be interviewed by a court psychiatrist, which the comptroller had previously refused to do.

The judge gave the defense lawyers until 10 p.m. yesterday to decide whether Mrs. McLean would meet with the court psychiatrist -- a deadline that may have been met.

Judge Bothe said she returned home after the deadline and found on her telephone answering machine a message from Mr. Murphy saying that Mrs. McLean would see the psychiatrist.

However, Judge Bothe said she had another message from Ms. Gutierrez that was noncommittal.

Ms. Gutierrez, reached by telephone, said she had returned home from Montgomery County about 9:15 p.m. and needed to confer with Mr. Murphy and see Mrs. McLean at the hospital before answering Judge Bothe.

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