Howard judge unbowed by critics Derided for remarks in rape case, Dudley stresses responsibility

December 07, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

For Howard Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, each case -- murders, domestic violence, slip-and-fall lawsuits, divorces, probation violations -- is a piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle called society.

When the pieces form a problem, he feels it's his duty to speak up -- no matter whom he outrages.

He calls irksome repeat offenders poster children for genetic engineering. He tells a man who had an illicit relationship with the family baby sitter to stay away from girls or get a brain transplant.

When a newspaper headline labeled him Judge Dread for his tough words and actions, Dudley didn't protest -- a T-shirt bearing the title hangs in his chambers.

"I am just someone who, at the risk of offending someone, feels the need to bring things to people's attention, in hopes that they will join in doing something about it," Dudley, 60, said last week after deeply offending a rape victim in a recent case.

While sentencing the woman's former boyfriend last month, Dudley told her she might not have been raped if she had taken steps to protect herself. The victim -- and many others who have read his well-publicized comments in that case -- believed he was blaming her.

The way Dudley and his supporters see it, the judge was telling an ugly truth about the persistent cycle of domestic violence that fills courtrooms across the country.

That, Dudley says, is his job.

Sheila Begg, the victim's rape counselor, disagrees.

"I thought his job was to sentence this man and hold accountable the one who did the crime," Begg said.

"There are times some of the things he says are entertaining. I don't know whether that's appropriate in the court. There are days we are subjected to monologues," the counselor said.

In nine years on the bench, Dudley has been dispensing justice as he sees fit. Most defense lawyers and prosecutors who appear before him say that he is a fair, bright, hard-working judge -- if unpredictable and demanding. He holds everyone in the courtroom to a high standard, lawyers say.

Personal responsibility is a theme he returns to again and again: Women in abusive relationships should have the ability to leave. Repeat offenders -- throw them in jail. Civilized society is based on deterrence; you reward people who behave well by punishing people who behave badly.

Dudley does not blink twice before saying what's on his mind. On any day, those in his courtroom may wince or smile as he rips into his issue of the moment, often playing to the crowd.

No one is exempt.

A juror who went home for lunch, fell asleep and did not return found herself jailed overnight and slapped with a $240 fine. A young man caught dealing drugs and then violating his probation was sent a letter telling him: "It was obvious to all at that time that you had numerous and serious problems. Time has not proven us wrong."

Said Baltimore attorney Richard Karceski: "Judge Dudley says the things that I think most judges think, but don't say out loud. They are afraid of the same thing happening to them as is happening to him."

The judge's comments in the rape case provoked criticism that drowned out his explanation: that he wasn't blaming the victim, just trying to show that she could have ended the relationship or at least should have had the resources to feel she could leave safely.

The woman, who supports herself and two children as a waitress, said, "The judge just doesn't understand. He's got an easy life. I don't think he could imagine what it's like to go through something like this."

It was the second time he's gotten into trouble for comments in a sexual assault case.

"We are now raising a generation of people who mate like people in heat," he said last year, in a case in which a 15-year-old girl was lured into having sex with a 31-year-old man.

But Dudley seems to enjoy his provocative role. In his office, where classical music usually plays and a photo of his favorite golf course hangs on the wall, he also keeps the Judge Dread T-shirt. It is particularly visible to those who sit in front of his immaculate desk.

Even those who respect Dudley as a judge say his biting remarks can be gratuitous. And sometimes he doesn't seem to understand the impact the statements have on those in his courtrooms.

"A lot of his comments are frankly embarrassing," Karceski said.

Dudley is unapologetic. Lawyers who know him say he is an independent thinker who is not swayed by public criticism. It's his courtroom and his defendants.

Take, for example, how he sentenced one repeat drunken driver. The man came before him several years ago with seven convictions for driving with a revoked license, nine alcohol convictions and 168 points on his record. Calling him the worst driver in Maryland, Dudley sent him to jail for seven years -- but challenged the man to find a worse driver than himself. If he could, the judge vowed, he would lower the sentence.

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