Retiring judge says cases stick with her

Baltimore circuit's Heller lauded for bringing order, high expectations to court

October 14, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

After 17 years of presiding over the trials in some of Baltimore's most macabre murder cases and other grisly crimes, the city's top judge said the job doesn't get easier with time.

"They're not just statistics because you never forget them," said Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, who has decided not to seek re-election in November next year when her term expires.

Heller said the cases she remembers most vividly are the horrid ones, such as the teen-age drug addict who put her baby in a toilet and closed the lid.

"I was struck that she was so overwhelmed with her life and had no support," Heller said. "Those are the cases that are not broadcast, but give you a hint of what goes on here."

Heller, 62, is the first woman named administrative judge of a Circuit Court in Maryland. She has been the city's top judge for the past four years, and said she plans to remain active on the bench, filling in as a retired judge.

She will be replaced as the city's top bench official in November by Circuit Judge Marcella A. Holland.

A native of East Baltimore, Heller has garnered praise from her peers -- including Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell -- as one of the most respected judges on the state bench.

Bell said that Heller has made the busiest court in the state run more effectively and efficiently. Last year, her court managed 18,134 new felony and misdemeanor cases, as well as 14,690 new civil cases, according to court data.

"She's a great administrative judge," Bell said. "She took over at a tough time, when the criminal docket was in bad shape, the backlog was really bad. She's made great strides, she's very innovative. Four years later, things are a lot better."

Heller's accomplishments include enforcing strict rules that require cases to move forward quickly or be dismissed, implementing an electronic filing system for asbestos cases and beginning the state's first business and technology courts.

But when she speaks about her years on the bench, she'll talk most about cases such as the two 17-year-olds who were convicted of murdering a Teacher of the Year at Ashburton Elementary School. Jerome C. McDaniel's body was found in Druid Hill Park near the city zoo's Reptile House in 1989.

"The kids who killed him played softball in the park two days later," she remembered.

Heller said she decided not to seek re-election partly because she didn't want to go through another campaign, and partly because wanted more time to spend with her two young grandchildren, who live in Chicago.

Heller said she would continue to serve on the executive committee of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for which she travels around the world to assess the need of threatened Jewish communities. The organization sets up funds and programs to aid those in need.

Her fact-finding trips on the organization's behalf have taken her to many countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Poland, Croatia, Argentina, Greece and Cuba.

She also is on the board of the University of Maryland School of Law and Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She is a former board member of Girl Scouts of Central Maryland.

While she expects to work full-time through the end of the year, Heller said she's looking into a few courses at the Johns Hopkins University and hopes to attend more theater, especially Shakespeare.

"With more free time, I know I won't miss a performance at Center Stage and the Everyman Theater," she said.

Heller worked as an assistant attorney general for nine years before being appointed to the Circuit Court in 1986 by then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

Those who work with her say she teaches those around her by having high expectations.

"She helped me to be a better attorney," said Circuit Judge Althea Handy, a former prosecutor. "She expected you to be prepared and do your job well. She had high expectations and she made you meet them."

Handy remembered a case she had before Heller in 1995, in which a newly arrived Russian immigrant, Igor Berenshteyn, was killed on his pizza delivery route.

As Heller sentenced his killers to life in prison, she told the courtroom, which was filled with weeping onlookers, that the case was an "American tragedy."

"The defendants, like many of their contemporaries, lost sight of the fact that America is a place for opportunities and dreams," Heller said then. "Somehow, the message has to get out that life is not a cheap commodity. It means something."

Heller was born in 1941 to a father who was a general medical practitioner and a mother who worked in his office keeping the books.

She graduated from Forest Park High School, and at age 19, she married Richard Heller, who later became a pediatrician. They had two sons, Billy and Larry.

Heller went back to school, and in 1972 graduated from Hopkins. Two years later, when she was 33, Heller enrolled in law school at the suggestion of her sister, who told her to get a graduate degree.

She said it was among best life advice she's gotten.

Five years after Heller graduated from law school, her husband of 21 years suffered a fatal heart attack.

She was left with two young children to raise, and said she feels lucky her sister pushed her to go back to school.

"It is so important to have an education and some training," Heller said. "Even if you don't want to work, you have the ability."

A few years later, she married Shale Stiller, who was her family's lawyer. He is now a partner with Piper Rudnick LLC. They live in northern Roland Park.

"I always tell my children `You never know what life will bring you,'" Heller said. "You can't plan your life out because you don't know what's around the next corner."

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