Judge knew the racial dynamics of the street

September 19, 2000|By Michael Olesker

TO THE LAST hours of his life, Judge Joseph C. Howard Sr. could recall the first hour of his life in the city of Baltimore - and the memory informed him, and motivated him, his entire career.

It was the summer of 1958. Howard had packed everything he owned into a cramped and tattered station wagon and driven from Des Moines, Iowa, to a city he did not know. Driving on Harford Road looking for his brother's house at 1017 Bonaparte Ave., circling the block for the third time, he was stopped by two white police officers.

"You've been driving this wreck around these streets for three months," one officer said. "When in the hell are you gonna get a Maryland license?"

The accusation angered Howard, who had literally just arrived here, and his response angered the policeman. Bitter words flew back and forth, and suddenly the two men were locked in heart-thumping physical struggle, which Howard was winning by virtue of sheer size, when the second policeman intervened.

"Stop it, John," the officer shouted at his partner. "You're wrong. Just let him go."

And Joe Howard, in his first hour in Baltimore, at the crossroads of his life, was allowed to drive away.

Years later, sitting in his judicial chambers on St. Paul Place, Howard told the story and attached the appropriate message.

"It would have destroyed my whole career before it started," he said. "If that one white policeman hadn't been honest, they would have pulled me in. I would have been taken to district court, the police would have given a false story, and the judge would have rejected my denial. The judge would have said, `I'm sure this officer wouldn't lie.' And I would have been found guilty of something. That's the usual procedure."

Note the phrase: "the usual procedure." Baltimore had never had a judge speak this kind of language, criticizing the criminal justice system on the basis of race. And when Howard died the other day, at 77, at his home in Pikesville, there was still no other judge as finely tuned to the racial dynamics of the streets, and the criminal justice system, nor as outspoken about them.

In 1966, as one of the few black assistant state's attorneys, he was the first person with any legal stature to charge a dual standard in rape cases, declaring in a lengthy study that "the rape of a white by a Negro is treated as a far more serious crime than any other racially categorized rape"; that "compared with all other defendants, Negroes convicted of rape against whites are disproportionately sentenced to death, life and extended prison terms"; and that "white defendants convicted of rape against Negroes are given less extended sentences than Negroes convicted of similar attacks on whites."

Amid much uproar from white judges, the charges were further investigated - and validated.

"I can recognize what it's like to be down there," Howard said one afternoon, as he stared down at the street from his chambers. "It's a judge's responsibility to see what conditions are in the streets - and in the prisons.

"You know," he said, "some judges think they're quasi-religious figures, with their dark robes and exalted positions. They think it's not their business to be involved. But their conduct in court causes trouble in the streets."

He chuckled at his own words. He understood how other judges would respond to such language, and the language they would use to describe him.

"An arrogant, audacious black-power advocate," he said. "That's what they call me." He glanced at a wall, where he had hung a painting of a black woman holding the scales of justice. "They can call me a lot of things," he said softly. "But not unjust."

He had no patience for black criminals who thought of themselves as "political prisoners." He feared sending young whites to prison, knowing "they're the minority in there, and there's reverse racial abuse." He sympathized with prison guards, "who are prisoners in an awful system." And, remembering his own confrontation in the street, he respected the difficult job faced by police.

But he knew the country's history of racism, too, and remembered seeing it in the most painful personal ways. Howard's father was Charles Preston Howard, editor-in-chief of the Howard News Syndicate and a friend of Dr. Ralph Bunche, the first African-American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Howard remembered leaving the United Nations building, where Bunche was U.S. ambassador, with his father and Bunche. They took the New York subway. Charles Howard rose to give his seat to a white woman. She sat down, saw she was next to the black man Bunche, and quickly stood up and walked away.

Such moments informed Judge Joseph Howard's life and stoked emotional fires within him for years.

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