Life or death decision awaits Arundel judge

March 12, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

The man who will decide whether Scotland E. Williams should be executed for killing two Washington lawyers is the son of a shopkeeper, a grandfather of four, an Annapolis native and a "law-and-order judge" with old-fashioned values.

Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who will preside at the sentencing hearing scheduled tomorrow, decorates his courtroom with Norman Rockwell prints, listens to Lawrence Welk, has been married to the same woman for 42 years and is astonished by the violence committed by the murderers, rapists and sex offenders who come into his court each year.

In more than 15 years on the bench, he has never been asked to sentence a defendant to death.

He always wanted to be a lawyer. It says so under his picture in the Annapolis High School yearbook. And, by his own admission, he has always kept a small-town, middle-America, Reader's Digest perspective on life.

"I like the old values," said Judge Lerner, 63. "Kids go to school, and they respect their teachers and they respect their parents. People love their country and work hard, and they're proud to make something that's good for others. . . .

"Today, you take your life in your hands when you go out on a dark street at night, and it shouldn't be that way," he said.

Judge Lerner will sentence Williams for the first-degree murders of Jose E. Trias, 49, and Julie Noel Gilbert, 48. The husband and wife were found shot to death May 16 in their weekend home in Winchester on the Severn.

The judge could sentence Williams to life in prison, life without parole, or death by lethal injection.

Lawyers who know Judge Lerner say Williams made a mistake when, against his lawyers' advice, he chose to be sentenced by the judge rather than by the jury that deliberated 5 1/2 hours before convicting him Thursday.

Judge Lerner, they say, is a compassionate and affable man and a fair-minded jurist.

"He can be very tough on reasonable doubt, on making the state prove its case," said John H. Robinson III, a former Anne Arundel County prosecutor who now does criminal defense work. "He's fair and he listens carefully to the facts."

But when it comes to sentencing violent offenders, no one slams the prison door harder, lawyers say.

"I think he views his role as a judge partly as a defender of the community, and if it's a serious crime, he's going to do his best to see that the defendant is not free to bother the community anymore," said Terrence M. Nolan, a Glen Burnie lawyer.

"If you are found guilty in front of him, he's a law-and-order judge," Mr. Robinson said.

Judge Lerner grew up near the courthouse and graduated in 1948 from Annapolis High School, where he played center on the basketball team. He remains treasurer of his class reunion committee.

He attended the University of Maryland for 2 1/2 years, then earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1954.

He served in the Army's enlisted ranks for two years, writing wills and performing other legal services for soldiers before being honorably discharged in 1956. He worked for a Baltimore law firm for eight months before opening a law office in Annapolis.

He was elected to the Annapolis city council in 1961 and represented the city's 8th Ward for four years before running as an independent candidate for mayor.

He lost to Roger "Pip" Moyer, a boyhood friend who was three years behind him at Annapolis High and was manager of the basketball team. Mr. Moyer appointed him Annapolis city attorney in 1969.

He held the $7,000-a-year post for 10 years and won Mr. Moyer's lifelong respect and admiration.

"There's nobody I know of, or have ever been associated with, who I would have more faith in to make the right decision than Gene Lerner," Mr. Moyer, deputy director of the Annapolis City Housing Authority, said last week.

In December 1979, Gov. Harry Hughes appointed Judge Lerner to the Anne Arundel Circuit Court. He is up for re-election in 1996 and has already said he will try to keep the $91,700-a-year post.

Judge Lerner reads five newspapers a day, has a good rapport with the news media, believes society has become too litigious and opposes allowing television cameras in Maryland's courtrooms.

"In my opinion, court business is not entertainment, and that's what this Court TV has turned it into," he said.

He declined to discuss the Williams case.

Maryland's last execution occurred May 17, when John F. Thanos was put to death by lethal injection. Thanos was convicted of three murders committed during a statewide crime spree in 1990.

Garrett County Circuit Judge Frederick A. Thayer III, one of two judges who handed down death sentences for Thanos, said he agonized over the decision.

"It's a decision none of us wants to have to make, and what went into it for me was a lot of cogitation over, 'Do I have the moral right to do this?' " said Judge Thayer.

Many lawyers said Judge Lerner's decision will largely depend on the arguments presented by Williams' lawyers, Linda Ostovitz and Craig Gendler.

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