Bothe's courtroom strangely silent City judge departs after 17 lively years

January 13, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Her skulls were tucked into a box with care, marked "Very Fragile." There was no last chance to roll her eyes at a likely story, no last colloquy with a murderer.

Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe finished her 17 years on the Baltimore Circuit Court bench with uncharacteristic quiet this week, packing up her chambers at the far corner of the second floor of Courthouse East, known as the "Taj Mahal" for its elegant quarters. Her replacement, Circuit Court master Bonita J. Dancy, is to be sworn in Thursday.

A city trial nominating commission ended the 68-year-old jurist's career in October, when it voted not to forward her name to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for reappointment.

While the commission's vote is confidential, members said privately they were concerned about cases in which Judge Bothe had been reversed by appellate courts for interrupting during trial testimony. And some lawyers questioned her decision to seek another term when she will reach the mandatory retirement age for Maryland judges in two years.

This week, she did little but pack her belongings.

"I'm going to miss the whole process," she said. "I like jurors. I think what the appellate courts have said about my interrupting is a result of my concern for them as human beings under pretty scary conditions."

The judge has always been regarded as a character, known for her fascination with the macabre. For years, she traded with other judges to get as many murder cases as possible. She collects crime novels and sinister souvenirs, including a number of skulls -- at least one of them real.

In a town where murder occurs virtually every day, she presided over some of the most sensational trials, and she always had something to say. To contract murderer Geraldine Parrish, who appeared to fall into seizures during her 1989 trial, the judge said: "Nobody's paying any attention to you."

Her most frightening moment in a courtroom was meant to be a sweet one. A florist, delivering a dozen roses sent to the judge by a thankful friend, was a little too determined to approach the bench. As the florist burst into the courtroom carrying the package in brown paper, a sheriff's deputy tackled him.

"We were OK, but the roses suffered a little," the judge said.

Some lawyers certainly won't be sorry to see her go. Lawyers William H. Murphy Jr. and M. Cristina Gutierrez have battled with her repeatedly, most publicly during the theft and misconduct trial of former city Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean. Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, also clashed with her over the McLean case.

What now? She is hoping the Court of Appeals will vote to certify her as a retired judge, so that she still could preside over trials in various courts from time to time. A voracious fan of crime books, she's also thinking of writing.

And the former judge might work with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, where she worked for years before becoming what many consider one of the city's toughest judges.

She went out insisting that there was no reason for her ouster, and she warned other judges to be on their guard when going before the commission. "It's very, very disturbing for the prospects of judicial selection," she said.

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