Judge to mull death sentence Penalty phase begins today in Annapolis double murder case

August 10, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Did he really pull the trigger?

How did his troubled youth affect him?

Exactly what does a wealth of genetic evidence show?

And the bottom line: Should Scotland Williams be sentenced to die for the 1994 fatal shootings of Washington lawyers Jose E. Trias and Julie N. Gilbert in their weekend home near Annapolis?

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Pamela L. North will consider those questions beginning today when prosecutors and defense attorneys for Williams return to her courtroom. After presiding over a contentious, nearly monthlong trial in which a jury convicted Williams of two first-degree murders, the judge must decide if Williams should die or spend the rest of his life in jail.

A capital case is the most emotionally and intellectually wrenching for many judges, especially if the defendant has chosen to be sentenced by a judge rather than a jury, as Williams has.

"A judge has to walk a tightrope," said Elsbeth L. Bothe, a retired Baltimore circuit judge who tried capital cases as a defense lawyer and judge. "There is so much at stake. It is not like somebody got their pocket picked."

It isn't just the myriad rules to apply or the knowledge that a death sentence merits an automatic review by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which scrutinizes a judge's every move for potential reversible errors.

"You hold in your hands the life of another person. It's probably the most difficult job a judge has," said Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who sentenced Williams to die in 1995, only to have the conviction and sentence overturned by the state's highest court.

"I can understand what the present trial judge is going through," he said. "I gave a great deal of thought to it. I did agonize over it, I really did."

Those who know North and practice law before her say she will have thoroughly researched nuances of the law and will take copious notes as each side frames its pleas, and she will agonize over her decision.

"She is an eminently fair jurist," said lawyer George S. Lantzas, a member of the judicial nominating commission that recommended North for the judgeship in 1995. "But I am sure she is going to confine her decision to the dictates of the statute. And also her conscience."

Her former law partner, J. Michael Wachs, agreed: "I think she will spend a considerable amount of time thinking about what she wants to do in making certain in her mind what she thinks is the right thing. She won't be influenced by political things."

Demanding of others

The 45-year-old judge with the whimsical PEZ candy dispenser collection has a reputation for a gracious and unflappable courtroom demeanor, for walking into her courtroom prepared, and for bringing common sense and compassion as well as intellectual integrity to her rulings.

She is also demanding of others in her third-floor courtroom.

In child-support cases, she is known to take extra time to work with fathers to adapt payment schedules, but also to ask them how they expect their offspring to thrive if their support payments are sporadic and inadequate. During Williams' trial, she scheduled hearings on defense motions before the jury arrived at 9: 30 a.m. and some days kept jurors until after 5 p.m.

P. Tyson Bennett, the county school board lawyer who lost a heated West County redistricting appeal in her court, said she gave both sides ample opportunity to present arguments, briefs and case law.

"I still believe the judge was incorrect," he said. "But I still think she is a good judge."

He said that when she was unfamiliar with school administration laws regarding violent disabled children, she said so and then set about learning.

A University of Baltimore law school graduate, North worked part time from 1983 to 1989 in the public defender's office, then full time for two years. She and Wachs, also a public defender, left to open a private practice in Annapolis.

While she handled family law and personal injury cases, most of her practice was in criminal law, including capital cases. She was considered an expert on the constitutional issues of arrest and search warrants when she became a judge. Her studying for the Williams case, which hinges in part on genetic evidence, has made her extraordinarily well-versed in DNA, lawyers say. She is part of the panel that will run a training program in genetics for Maryland and Delaware judges in October.

North declined to be interviewed for this article, noting the high-profile nature of the case.

Before Lerner sentenced him in 1995, Williams told the judge he wanted the death penalty. Whether he will ask this week to join the 15 prisoners on Maryland's death row is unknown.

Was he the killer?

One issue the defense will raise is whether Williams, 35, of Arnold was the killer. No physical evidence or testimony conclusively has him shooting the married couple execution-style in their bed. No murder weapon was found.

According to Maryland law, the shooter can be sentenced to die, but not an accomplice.

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