Judge resumes hearing sex cases Bollinger had said he'd avoid trials of assault on women

January 16, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Nearly a year after controversy led Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr. to disqualify himself from trials involving sexual offenses or domestic violence, the judge has quietly begun hearing those cases again.

His move has angered one of the women's rights groups that last year called for Bollinger's resignation after he wiped out the battery conviction of a wife beater. The man had sought the change so he could have a clean record to join a country club.

"This is just another illustration of [his] continued disregard for the seriousness of violence against women," said Christine Brodak, public relations chairwoman of the Baltimore chapter of the National Organization for Women. "We will not accept anything less than his removal."

In February -- after legislators and women's rights groups complained to the Maryland Judicial Disabilities Commission about Bollinger's conduct -- he took the unusual steps of reinstating the batterer's conviction, then disqualifying himself from hearing any more cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault or rape.

Complaints about Bollinger were dismissed by the disabilities commission in September, although the commission gave the judge a written warning about his conduct in the wife beating decision. In a previous case in 1994, the judge was reprimanded for insensitive comments in a rape case.

Bollinger refused to talk to a Sun reporter this week, but his secretary, Angela Miller, said the judge has heard about a half-dozen cases involving sexual assault since last fall "and no one has protested."

She said he decides "on a case-by-case basis" to hear such trials.

This week, he oversaw a jury trial in the case of Thomas E. Webb, a former county jail guard accused of sexually assaulting an inmate Jan. 7, 1997.

Yesterday, John Cox, the assistant state's attorney who is prosecuting Webb, said he had no problem with Bollinger overseeing the jury trial.

Bollinger took care during the trial not to allow defense attorney Lon C. Engel to ask the alleged victim about her history of prostitution.

"Nothing has happened in this case that I would question in any way," said Cox.

But representatives from women's groups took a different view of Bollinger's decision to hear sex offense and domestic violence cases.

Brodak, from NOW, said, "Given the appalling history, we're not surprised Judge Bollinger has reneged on his promise to recuse himself from cases involving violence against women."

Susan Elgin, president of the Women's Law Center of Maryland, one of the groups that complained to the judicial disabilities commission, had a milder response.

"We hope the previous reviews of [Bollinger's] conduct in those cases will make him aware of his responsibility to be fair and sensitive to the issues of violence against women," she said.

In his letter last year to County Administrative Judge John Grason Turnbull II disqualifying himself from hearing cases involving violence against women, Bollinger said he believed he could be impartial. But he said the intense publicity had reached the point at which "my impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

"I therefore request that, until I conclude that recusal is no longer required, you instruct the Assignment Office that the types of cases described above are not to be included in my docket," he wrote at the time.

The case Bollinger was criticized for involved Baltimore pawnbroker Charles H. Weiner, who was given probation before judgment after Weiner's lawyer told the judge the 1995 conviction may have doomed his clients' chances to join a country club.

Bollinger later reversed himself on a technicality. In April, another judge, Frederick C. Wright III, refused to change Weiner's battery conviction to probation before judgment, noting that Weiner's estranged wife suffered serious eye, ear and face injuries when he beat her head into a tile floor.

The judge also noted that Weiner had been given probation before judgment 20 years before for beating his first wife -- a fact unknown to Bollinger or the prosecutor during Weiner's 1995 case.

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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