Courtroom 215 teeters on brink of absurdity Murder proceeding tries patience of all involved

November 02, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

In a week when justice at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse slowed to a crawl, the case of State vs. Peter A. Muntjan seemed the slowest of all.

Behind the doors of Courtroom 215, time has taken on a certain elasticity, and a court of law threatens to transform itself into a theater of the absurd. Baltimore Circuit Judge Paul A. Smith acknowledges as much, shaking his head violently, rubbing his eyes, thundering orders at attorneys and generally looking pained as he confronts the strange fits and lurches of a first-degree murder case.

At a time when the city's Circuit Court is strapped for judges, with an endless stream of violent episodes to be adjudicated, the case seems at times to embody the public's worst perceptions of the legal system's inefficiencies.

How long has the Muntjan case been going on?

So long that the witness stand's dainty brocade cushion bore the definite imprint of a detective forced to rest his person there hour after hour; so long that the judge is reduced to bellowing "Ask the question" dozens of times a day; so long that the case has been in court for nearly two months, and pretrial motions are only just finishing; so long that the administrative judge has registered his displeasure and all the courthouse gadflies shake their heads as they ask what in the world is going on with "that case."

"Evidently this must be the full moon, because everybody's more agitated than usual," William H. Murphy Jr., who represents Muntjan, remarked in court one day this week.

Consider the cast of characters: Carolyn Starks-Saxon, a soft-spoken prosecutor known for near-magical success with juries, but also admonished repeatedly for asking leading questions; Murphy, a tactician famous for his confrontational style and occasional contempt of court; and Smith himself, a mild-mannered judge whose patience is slowly but increasingly taxed.

At the heart of all the hubbub is an actual murder case, in which a man named William C. Norris is dead and Muntjan, a 48-year-old artist, is on trial.

It began on the night of March 4, 1995, when paramedics were called to a warehouse Muntjan rented in Southeast Baltimore. Police and paramedics found Norris, a 45-year-old convicted burglar and robber, lying at the edge of a fenced yard, his red sweat shirt soaked several shades darker with blood from a shotgun blast to the chest.

Paramedic Donald Medtart testified that Muntjan told him he had shot Norris because Norris was trying to rob him. But Norris's hands were crossed and tied with rope. When Medtart asked who had done that, he says Muntjan replied again: "I did."

Why that might have happened is not yet clear. Once the trial begins, Saxon is expected to argue that the evidence shows Muntjan killed Norris intentionally, tying his hands while he was still alive. Murphy is expected to argue that the shooting was justified by self-defense.

But that is for this coming week. Last week, Smith's courtroom was consumed with haggles over the suppression of evidence and heated arguments over the disclosure of new information.

Thursday morning, court was supposed to start at 9: 30 a.m. Saxon arrived a few minutes after that. Murphy came in about 20 minutes later, saying that Baltimore County Judge Dana M. Levitz had refused to let him postpone a sentencing. Smith, in his robe, wandered out into the courtroom without announcement, causing all to rise hastily.

"I got you, I'm going to keep you," he thundered at Murphy, not even ascending the bench. "I'm not going to bend to Judge Levitz. I'm not giving in to him!" He promptly retreated to his chambers.

As Murphy called to make arrangements with the other judge, Saxon came and went, talking with her witness. "Let's get started," called Smith from his chambers.

Testimony didn't begin until 10: 20 a.m. And it ended at 3 p.m. -- after a lunch break -- because, Saxon told the court, her next witness had a child-care problem.

The judge lamented that what testimony there was hadn't advanced the case much.

"It's getting to the point where I'm hearing the same testimony over and over and over again," he said.

It was already a tough week at the courthouse. The death of Judge Marvin B. Steinberg Oct. 14, and the absence of another judge who will be out for at least a month due to health problems, cut the number of available felony case judges by half. Retired Judge David Ross, sitting to help ease some of the backlogs, took over Smith's misdemeanor caseload to give him time to finish the Muntjan case.

By week's end the "move" list of felony matters -- those cases that need to be tried as soon as a court is available -- was about 21 long, with no immediate relief expected. Twenty-one more cases on the civil side were waiting for a home.

The Muntjan case didn't cause all these problems, but it certainly didn't help. Administrative Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan sighed when the case was mentioned to him. "I'm not thrilled about the way it's been moving," he said.

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