High- and low-profile defendants have different days in court


June 13, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Attorneys representing Jackie McLean do not like the judge assigned to her criminal trial, and, having failed to dump Judge Elsbeth Bothe the conventional way, they've taken their case public. The media have been all over the story. Angry exchanges with the judge and the behavior of the troubled comptroller in the courtroom have kept the histrionics high. And on Friday, five members of the Baltimore City Council dropped by Circuit Court, apparently to see how they could help. Some, if not all, met with defense attorneys and two other judges, including the administrative judge. By day's end, the McLean Team had won a postponement of the trial. It's still possible that defense attorneys will succeed in getting Bothe pulled from the case.

If by today you have made the assumption that politics influenced a judicial decision, that's OK. Politicians would not call on judges because they are merely concerned citizens disturbed that a criminal proceeding is turning into a circus, further damaging public confidence in the judicial system. They likely would do such a thing because they are sympathetic to a defendant -- in this case, a deeply troubled colleague -- and want to see things shift a certain way.

So, even those of us who share some sympathy for McLean and who felt Judge Bothe should have cut her a break by delaying the trial a bit (not necessarily three months) take a dim view of all this. Politicians in a courthouse? Bailiff, please, remove these people.

The report of this meeting among judges and council members represents exactly what countless other judges, prosecutors and, believe it or not, most attorneys try hard to avoid: Further evidence for a cynical public that the outcomes of judicial proceedings are influenced by politics and station, and that the powerful are granted more deference than the powerless.

Consider what happened to another woman in another courthouse near Baltimore, just within the last two weeks.

A 23-year-old city resident appeared in Towson District Court to face a charge that she took a 30-count bottle of extra-strength Tylenol from Metro Foods on East Joppa Road. The bottle was valued at $3.82.

The defendant appeared in court without an attorney. She was obviously not savvy to the need for one, or to the risks in trying to represent herself.

She did not want to make a federal case out of it. She simply wanted to plead guilty to the charge of theft under $300, a misdemeanor. She said she took the Tylenol, though she had had money when she went to Metro and had paid for other items. An assistant state's attorney, Katie O'Malley, said the state would not oppose probation before judgment because the defendant had no prior criminal record.

The judge was a visiting jurist from Charles County, Larry R. Holtz, filling in at Towson. He first lectured the defendant and urged that she get a lawyer. Then, after the woman's guilty plea, the judge asked whether someone the defendant knew had been sick, in need of the Tylenol. The young woman said that her mother had had a headache, but did not really offer that as an excuse.

Why, then, had she stolen the Tylenol?

"I don't know. I apologize for taking your time," the defendant said, and apologized to the store.

The judge sentenced her to three days in jail.

Had the defendant exercised her right to appeal to Circuit Court, it is likely she would have done her time before a trial at the higher court could have been arranged. So it is assumed that, by now, three days have been served in jail for stealing a $3.82 bottle of Tylenol. Part of that assumption is based in the doubt this 23-year-old woman had any politicians lobbying on her behalf.

A store has every right -- in fact, a need -- to prosecute shoplifters. But decisions about the processing of cases, including sentencing, are left to judges because we trust they are capable of considering all facts, down to the smallest nuance, that they know the laws and that their rulings in all matters, from pretrial to sentencing, will be fair and based in objective wisdom.

If they are not capable of that, they should not be on the bench.

In the Towson shoplifting case, the defendant probably should have had a lawyer. It's her own fault for not getting one. And yet none who understands how all this works, especially a judge considering jail for a first-time misdemeanor, should feel satisfied when a naive defendant shows up without counsel. A lawyer might have better argued the case, might have negotiated a better deal, might have asked for a postponement in the hope of a day with a judge more familiar with provincial trends in the sentencing of shoplifters.

But the woman in Towson took her chances, admitted her guilt and apologized for the trouble. Look where that got her.

And look where this story leaves us: Three days in jail for a three-dollar bottle of Tylenol in Towson contrasted with five Baltimore City Council members showing up at a courthouse regarding a high-profile criminal matter -- Jackie McLean's alleged theft of city funds and breaking of the public trust -- followed by a postponement the trial judge would not grant.

The judge in the Towson shoplifting case probably feels his decision was fair. He might even think his sentence was soft. I don't. But at least I have no reason to suspect that politicians were out in the halls lobbying for a break.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.