Baltimore judge retires after 20 `perfect' years

Circuit Court's Byrnes says he'll continue work on child custody laws

January 16, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes stepped into the limelight weeks ago when he struck down the murder conviction of Michael Austin, helping to free a man jailed for 27 years.

Byrnes' name was mentioned in publications and newscasts across the country. Yet the Austin case might not be the most remarkable decision of his career on the bench, which began 20 years ago and ended yesterday.

Last week, as he packed his office on the second floor of Courthouse East, he looked over some of the thousands of cases he has presided over in the past two decades. Many ran together in his memory as a mass of murders, assaults and robberies committed in one of the most violent cities in the United States.

A few stood out.

"Do you know about the Cole case?" he asked, clutching a newspaper clipping he picked from his cluttered desk.

It was 1986 when Harry Cole, a respected Presbyterian minister, asked Byrnes to order the withdrawal of a life support system that was keeping his comatose 44-year-old wife alive.

Jacqueline Cole had been in a coma for 41 days, the victim of a brain hemorrhage. When she was stricken, she said she "didn't want to live like this," Harry Cole told the judge.

Her doctor testified that the woman might have a one-in-a-million chance of recovery.

Byrnes refused to issue the order to remove life support. Cole regained consciousness six days after the hearing and soon recovered completely.

"Mr. Cole was well-meaning," Byrnes recalled. "But the request to have the life support turned off was not well-founded in medicine or in law."

That episode launched Byrnes, 62, a former state senator, on a study of the right-to-die issue and led to a law that updated Maryland's provisions for living wills.

Byrnes, from a family of judges, grew up with the law.

His father, Joseph R. Byrnes, was once president of the state Senate and a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. His brother is Baltimore County Circuit Judge J. Norris Byrnes.

In 1970, after years in private practice, he was elected state senator and served three terms.

In 1982, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him a judge on the Circuit Court. He was elected to that position later that year for a 15-year term, then re-elected.

Now that's he's leaving, he's melancholy, he said, but not hesitant.

"I've loved every minute of it," he said. "It was perfect."

Perhaps perfect, but not always smooth.

In 1997, he faced the ire of police officers after ordering a 15-year veteran to jail for killing an alleged drug dealer in the line of duty.

In an unusual move, he went on radio to explain to the public why he sentenced Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto to three years in prison.

"That was a very difficult case for me," Byrnes said, flipping through more newspaper clippings.

Tougher, he said, than the occasional threats on his life in his courtroom.

In 1991, one prison inmate who was on trial for killing a fellow inmate exploded in anger at the judge, warning him: "Just hope I don't ever come back out."

Byrnes said he was never scared for his life because the courthouse has good security, but his wife was "concerned enough" to make their phone number unlisted.

Byrnes would return home to his wife with stories such as that of Franklin Carl Redden, whom police found in a Highlandtown rowhouse, smiling next to the body of a murdered toddler in 1991.

The judge sentenced Redden to the maximum 30-year sentence for second-degree murder and told him: "You are something else. ... Rarely ever do we see a case as grotesque as this one."

Redden, who pleaded guilty, smiled at the judge during sentencing.

"Some people are pathological in nature and they do things to prove it," Byrnes said last week.

He plans to remain on the bench part time, which is common for retired judges, but he intends to dedicate most of what he calls the "third phase" of his life to nonprofit work.

He is chairman of the Maryland Center for Character Education, which he says "brings stability to the classroom," and president of the newly created Baltimore City Historical Society.

Byrnes also expects to continue his work reforming Maryland's custody laws, saying the state has "not acted in the best interest of the children."

Family has always been the most important part of life for Byrnes, whose father was an orphan. He and his wife, Helen "Candy" Byrnes, have three grown daughters.

As for Austin, his last high-profile case before retirement, Byrnes called it "a case of first impression" because it had no precedent. He wants to be clear that he did not make a judgment on Austin's guilt or innocence, he simply decided Austin did not get a fair trial.

"He had every conceivable review multiple times. Normally, that would be it," Byrnes said. "But I concluded his fundamental right to a fair trial had not been fully realized."

He drew on a new federal precedent dealing with evidence.

Byrnes said he had no emotions for the man after helping to free him from prison.

He never saw Austin face to face, and given the chance, said it would be inappropriate for the two to meet. "We can't be influenced by our emotions," Byrnes said. "I took satisfaction from the law in the case."

In the case of the comatose Jacqueline Cole, more was at stake.

"The good thing that came out of the Cole case," he said with a smile, "is the life of Mrs. Cole."

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