Solicitor's interference in arrest not first action on nephew's behalf

State's attorney's office accuses Zollicoffer of `inappropriate' conduct

May 03, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

When City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. interrupted a police investigation of his nephew Tuesday evening, it wasn't the first time Baltimore's top lawyer had upset law enforcement officials while trying to support his troubled relative.

The state's attorney's office said yesterday that Zollicoffer had twice engaged in "inappropriate" conduct during court proceedings for his nephew last year.

Zollicoffer has apologized for his outburst to police Tuesday, when he arrived at his nephew's house in Northeast Baltimore and hotly questioned officers who had arrested him on drug charges. He challenged their right to be on the property, accused them of using "Gestapo" tactics and threatened their jobs, according to police.

In an interview yesterday, Zollicoffer defended his behavior in the courtroom, where he has shown up regularly to check on his nephew's criminal cases.

On one occasion, he approached the judge and explained that one of the defendants, Lawrence D. Hutchings, now 22, was his nephew. On another, he spoke sternly to a prosecutor after her closing arguments, saying he would be checking into her performance to see if she was guilty of prosecutorial misconduct.

"I would never consciously interfere with a court proceeding," he said. "Looking at my actions then, and in retrospect now, I did nothing wrong. If I sit on the back bench, or poke my head in for five minutes, I don't see where you think that that's peddling influence."

Zollicoffer added that he has never interfered with police or prosecutors' investigations on behalf of his nephew, or tried to affect the outcome of one of Hutchings' criminal cases.

But Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, said the solicitor's appearances went beyond generally acceptable courtroom behavior.

"Mr. Zollicoffer has on at least two occasions over the past year appeared in the courtroom when the court was in session regarding cases involving his nephew," she said, adding that "he arrived with an entourage and made his presence known to the court in an inappropriate fashion."

The disagreement could worsen the already frosty relations between State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who is running for re-election, and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is considering whether to enter the governor's race. On Wednesday, O'Malley stood up for Zollicoffer, whom he has known since law school.

Yesterday, the mayor implicitly defended him again, saying he was curious about the rationale behind the state's attorney's criticism. "I'm interested in knowing the facts upon which she bases - what's the term of art there? - `made his presence known in an inappropriate fashion,'" he said. "It's nothing that she's ever brought to me before now or, to my knowledge, to anybody else in the administration."

On April 4 last year, Hutchings went before Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait to ask for a trial postponement. Hutchings, charged with first-degree attempted murder, first- and second-degree assault, conspiracy and gun crimes, had been accused along with two other men of stabbing a 24-year-old man in the back seven or eight times March 15, 2000.

At one point in the proceedings, a court tape shows, Schwait acknowledged Zollicoffer by name.

"May I approach?" Zollicoffer asked. When asked why he was there, he replied, "Unfortunately, one of the defendants is my nephew. ... Generally, I can sit in the back and be as inconspicuous as possible."

Schwait noted that as the case progressed, "It's going to be harder and harder for you to do that."

"I know," Zollicoffer said, "but unfortunately, if I'm not here, my family will crucify me."

Burns said the communication never should have happened. "Mr. Zollicoffer is not the counsel of record, therefore it is inappropriate for him to have an ex parte conversation with the court," she said.

Zollicoffer said Schwait initiated the conversation. "I would never have offered that information had I not been called to the bench," he said.

Hutchings later pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In a case that went to trial in November, Hutchings was charged with first- and second-degree assault and handgun crimes stemming from a 1999 incident in which he was accused of pointing a gun at a police officer, who then hit Hutchings on the back of the head, according to court records.

During the trial, Hutchings' defense attorney said police had beaten up his client without provocation. The attorney brought Zollicoffer into testimony by asking Hutchings on the witness stand whom he contacted first after the alleged assault. Hutchings said he called his uncle.

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