Orneriness is the rule in court and on the field

This Just In...

March 29, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

I GUESS Judge James T. Smith doesn't take kindly to defendants who inspire song in his courtroom. You could be 76 years old, harmless as a pacifist flea -- you could be a downright cultural anachronism -- but if your friends stage a singing and chanting demonstration in Judge Smith's courtroom in Baltimore County, you're looking at extra time in the cell block, buster.

I guess the judge takes these things personally.

How else to explain his imposition of a disproportionate 30-month prison sentence on longtime peace activist Phil Berrigan?

This judge has imposed lesser sentences on a foster mother convicted of child abuse (three months in prison) in 1997, and on police officer whose drinking and speeding killed a fellow officer in a 1995 accident (33 days in a treatment center, $1,000 fine, 192 hours of community service).

Phil Berrigan and his band of peace-loving extremists, who harmed nothing but steel and machinery, got Smith's hard hand.

The case goes back to December, when Berrigan and comrades acted on the biblical instruction to "beat swords into plowshares" by taking hammers to two A-10 Warthog aircraft at the Maryland Air National Guard base in eastern Baltimore County. This was a kind of Save the Earth action. Berrigan and other Plowshares activists claimed the jets use tank-killing weapons that carry depleted uranium, which is harmful to the environment.

But Smith, the judge assigned to Berrigan's trial, would hear none of this. He refused to allow testimony on depleted uranium.

Last week, during Berrigan's trial, his co-defendants disobeyed Smith's orders, and they and their supporters in the gallery sang, chanted and shouted. A red-faced Smith cleared the courtroom.

The next day, Berrigan and the other Plowshares activists were found guilty of malicious destruction and trespassing.

Everyone expected them to get jail time. It was the amount of it that was surprising.

Smith, apparently still miffed about the antics in his courtroom the day before, imposed sentences ranging from 18 to 27 months on Berrigan's three co-defendants, and 30 months -- nearly twice what the state had presented as the sentencing guidelines for the offense -- on the former Catholic priest.

That's 2 1/2 years in prison for a 76-year-old man whose unlawful actions are largely symbolic in nature, ritualistic acts of civil disobedience. Berrigan is a nuisance, I guess, but he's hardly a menace to society. A lot of people regard him as wholly irrelevant.

"The amount of destruction in this case takes it out of the guidelines of the typical malicious destruction of property case," Smith explained.

Repair to the Warthogs was said to cost $88,622, which sounds impressive, except that it was a military estimate and those things tend to be inflated.

But Smith didn't question the figure; he ordered Berrigan and his co-defendants to pay it. He also ordered cash bail of $90,000 each, "to be paid by the defendants only."

Tough stuff. Everyone feel safer now?

Make your day

Here's a word about that gun-lock raffle being staged by the Howard County Democratic Central Committee: If you want to buy tickets, they're $1 a piece or six for $5. The prize is a Master Lock 90D, a trigger rig that works on most rifles, shotguns and handguns. If, as Clint Eastwood once said, you're feeling lucky -- if, say, you just won a 9 mm Beretta in a gun raffle in Carroll County -- you can order tickets by calling 410-730-VOTE. Drawing is in May. This concludes today's public service message. Now, back to the rest of the column. ...

That old team spirit

A couple of 40-something baseball fans who took their sons to the Orioles spring training camp at Fort Lauderdale returned here with the less-than-shocking but nonetheless depressing observation that the players aren't all as congenial as they could be during the sunny preseason.

Robert Yospa of Owings Mills says Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson was annoyed when asked for an autograph and insisted that Yospa say "please" first. Yospa's 11-year-old son, Blake, approached Orioles relief pitcher Mike Timlin before a game on March 18. It was an idle moment. Timlin was sitting, not warming up. The boy asked Timlin for his autograph. Timlin refused, saying he was scheduled to pitch that day and that he doesn't sign autographs when he's due on the mound. (I guess he doesn't want to get writer's cramp.)

"Most of the senior players just ignored the fans and their requests for autographs," Robert Yospa reports. "[Bullpen coach] Elrod Hendricks seems to be the only real gentleman on the team. He has contact with any fan who wants to, signs anything and just makes you feel like you are welcome."

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