Case about `code' words

Dudley is accused of using `racial cliches' in sentencing of man

Md. high court hears appeal

Lawyer is urging a new hearing and a different judge

Howard County

April 11, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley's use of "racial cliches" while sentencing a black defendant in August 1999 introduced judicial "bias" into the sentencing process, a public defender argued yesterday before Maryland's highest court.

Assistant Public Defender Nancy Forster, the chief of the appellate division, said "code words" - animal, ghetto and jungle - in Dudley's speech should be enough for the Maryland Court of Appeals to send Valentino Maurice Jackson's case back before a different Howard County judge for a new sentencing hearing.

But Assistant Attorney General Steven L. Holcomb said the words can't be looked at by themselves and argued that the veteran judge was making a broader statement.

"The context here is that the judge was more concerned with crimes," he said.

Yesterday's oral arguments before the high court carried Jackson's name, but it was Dudley who appeared to be on trial.

In their bid to overturn Jackson's 18-year sentence for first-degree assault and related crimes, the 34-year -old Columbia man and his lawyers lobbed an appeal based solely on the judge's remarks before sentencing onto the court's radar.

The debate over the judge's comments took less than 20 minutes. Members of the appeals panel asked a few questions - including one from Judge Irma S. Raker, who asked Holcomb if his office believed that Dudley's remarks were appropriate or that the sentence was appropriate "notwithstanding" his remarks.

Holcomb said it was the latter.

Reached after the hearing, Dudley said, "Obviously, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn't use the words."

Forster said that appeals based on a judge's comments at sentencing are "very rare." Judges are given broad discretion in sentencing but cannot base their decisions on such considerations as race, religion and gender, according to judicial experts. "Judges do not cross that line for the most part," she said. "I think [Dudley] should choose his words more carefully and be more sensitive."

At Jackson's sentencing, Dudley mused that Columbia had attracted "rotten apples" from the city who "act like they're living in a ghetto."

He also said people came to Columbia "to get away from people like Mr. Jackson. Not to associate with them and have them follow them out here and act like this was a jungle of some kind."

Jackson was accused of pointing a sawed-off shotgun at a teen-ager on a Columbia parking lot early July 12, 1998, in a dispute that is said to have started over problems with a drug deal, according to court records.

A three-judge panel in Howard County and the Court of Special Appeals have affirmed the 18-year sentence.

Dudley has said he based Jackson's sentence on what was in front of him - the crime itself, the risk it carried for public safety and Jackson's history, which included drug use and failures of past probation sentences. And he has noted that sentencing is the only chance judges get to reflect on societal ills.

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