Security Of Courts Termed Adequate

No Changes Expected After Two Outbursts In City Criminal Trials

April 22, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top circuit judge and the city sheriff pronounced security adequate in circuit courthouses yesterday, despite two courtroom outbursts last week that pitted criminals against judges and victims' families.

Terrance D. Baker, 18, and Vernon Griffin, 18, convicted in the murders of their Cherry Hill neighbors Antonio L. Brown and Tommy David Thomas, threw their chairs at members of the victims' families Friday evening after a jury pronounced them guilty. As horrified spectators and jurors watched the chairs slam against an empty bench, sheriff's deputies tackled the men and handcuffed them. Said Judge John C. Themelis: "That was a mistake to do that in my courtroom."

On Wednesday, Leon Yukem Noel screamed profanities as Judge John Carroll Byrnes sentenced him to life without parole plus 25 years for the killing of Denise Ann Cooke, whom Noel robbed of 52 cents two summers ago.

"I'll see you in hell," Noel, 24, yelled at Byrnes before shouting an obscenity at him. The confrontation continued outside the courtroom, where Noel's mother and a young woman hurled angry words at Stephen Cooke, the victim's husband.

As he sentenced Griffin and Baker on contempt charges yesterday, Themelis said order in the courts "is really deteriorating from the top down." He said that some lawyers -- not the attorneys in that particular case -- set a bad example with disrespectful courtroom conduct.

"There's no constitutional right to act like a lunatic in the courtroom, none at all," said Themelis. "If citizens and witnesses do not feel comfortable in a courtroom, then where do they feel comfortable?"

But Administrative Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan and Sheriff John W. Anderson said they do not plan to make changes in the courthouse security force as a result of the incidents.

"If you have any more security in the courtrooms, people will be tripping over each other," Kaplan said. "This is more than I've heard happen in years. It's not something you change around a whole system for."

Anderson said that in the Noel case, deputies were warned that an outburst might occur, so extra security officers were sent to Byrnes' courtroom. But in Friday's incident, no warning was received.

"As a deputy, I saw a 14-year-old girl take a chair and throw it at a master," Anderson said. "Most things we have here are people making verbal threats. I could shut this place so tight that you cough, you get arrested. Would that be American-like? Would that be democratic-like?"

Attorneys for Baker and Griffin said their clients were acting out of youthful impetuousness and outrage at the verdicts. Both had pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorney Jane McGough, who represents Griffin, told Themelis yesterday that her client's youth and the fact that his grandmother died last week contributed to his outburst.

McGough also said long-standing animosity between families of the victims and the defendants may have played a role.

"I would apologize on his behalf," McGough said. "His behavior was inappropriate."

Assistant State's Attorney Ahmet Hisim, who prosecuted the case, said he didn't believe Griffin and Baker were sorry.

"Look at their attitudes now," he said, pointing at the defendants. "They're not even willing to apologize for what they have done. This is not the street."

Themelis sentenced both teen-agers to spend five months and 27 days in prison for contempt of court.

Griffin and Baker are to be sentenced June 3 in connection with the killings. Each could receive a maximum term of three life sentences plus 40 years for murder, aiding and abetting and use of a handgun in a crime of violence.

Chief Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman, who has spent 35 years on the city bench, said incidents such as the two last week no longer are surprising.

"These incidents are now becoming not uncommon," said Hammerman. "There is, on the part of many young people and their families, no respect for the court."

Pub Date: 4/22/97

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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