Dudley's fun to watch, but way off in this case

Comment

December 14, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

AS A REPORTER, I always enjoyed covering trials where judges like James B. Dudley presided.

Judges like him -- outspoken and sharp-witted -- give spectators a little extra. Listening to them dispense justice in their uninhibited style is like watching a crowd-pleasing dunk at a basketball game, even though a routine layup would count for two points just as well.

The Sun last month ran a front-page story about a kindred spirit of Judge Dudley's, Queen Anne's Circuit Judge John W. Sause Jr. His legendary temper prompted one lawyer to remark: "You never know when he is going to fly off. He does it frequently. That is why I do not go in [Sause's courtroom] any longer. I hired a person to go in there for me."

Retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth Bothe is another of this breed who never held back her thoughts. She had a reputation of trading with other judges to get as many murder cases as possible and for constantly interrupting lawyers and witnesses during testimony.

Then there is U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, whose acerbic wit and ridicule have left prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers mumbling profanities as they left his courtroom. Judge Smalkin was frustrated with federal sentencing guidelines that stripped federal judges of their authority. He told everyone in his courtroom how much he detested the rules that reduced the federal bench to "bean counters in black robes."

Listening to the thoughts of these cloistered decision-makers can be entertaining, informative and persuasive.

Wrong time, wrong place

But their expressions can come at the wrong time and from the wrong place.

This simple fact escapes Judge Dudley and some of those who support him.

The Howard Circuit Court judge hit the news earlier this month when The Sun reported a curious statement he made while sentencing Chester Paul Walker Jr., 36, to a five-year prison term for rape. In short, the judge suggested that the rape victim would not have been attacked had she ended her relationship with her attacker after an earlier assault against her.

Take his remark out of context and it makes perfect sense. Battered women, which describes the victim in this case, are advised by counselors to leave abusive relationships immediately and work on their self-esteem so they won't become victims in the future.

Counseling sessions take place not in the public spotlight of a Circuit courtroom but in confidential -- and sometimes hidden -- settings where the women are out of earshot and striking distance of their batterers.

Women are advised to leave after they are struck the first time because the violence will escalate if they stay. Forget forgiveness, these women are advised.

But in the decade since I first covered the issue of battered spouses, counselors have filled my ears with stories of women who start out in loving relationships. Women become emotionally and financially dependent. Somewhere along the line, the formerly loving spouse or boyfriend hits her. She should leave, but she has years invested in the relationship.

Cycle of abuse, forgiveness

The assault was a mistake, an aberration, she reasons. The assailant asks and receives forgiveness. The cycle of abuse and forgiveness happens again. And again.

Police hate responding to domestic violence calls because cases dissolve when women decide not to press charges that would flush away years-long relationships.

In the case that generated attention, the woman indeed had been a victim before and did not leave. But by following through with rape charges, she had decided she would not become Walker's victim again. Judge Dudley's admonition was, in a sense, a futile exercise of preaching to the converted.

Worse, he made these statements from the bench, while the victim sat in the pews and the criminal sat at the defendant's table and before he handed down his sentence.

Would someone cheated in a scam want a judge to say while sentencing the scammer that the victim should not have been so vulnerable? Would the family of a murder victim want a judge to tell them while sentencing the murderer that their loved one should have been more careful?

Even though the foundation of his remarks -- that women should not remain in abusive relationships -- is true, his judgment was horrible. He should save such statements for his chambers, or for battered women at shelters or in lectures to the Maryland State Bar Association.

In the right place and at the right time, his appreciation of the fact that battered women should leave abusive relationships could prevent women from becoming victims. In front of a woman who took a definitive step to end the cycle of abuse, he only victimized the woman again.

His awful timing rendered his comments less than useless.

They were insulting.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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