He has characterized drug dealers as his pet peeve. He sent a man to prison for life for a fatal stabbing that the defendant argued was in self-defense. And last week, he handed down a 100-year prison term to a teenager convicted in the shootings last spring outside Randallstown High School.
No one should have been surprised that Baltimore County Circuit Judge Patrick Cavanaugh sentenced the former Randallstown High student to as many years in prison as Maryland law allows for four counts of first-degree assault, lawyers who know and have tried cases before the judge said.
In a little more than two years on the bench, the 61-year-old Dundalk native with a folksy manner and a quick Irish wit has earned a reputation for handing down serious punishments to defendants convicted of serious crimes - particularly violent criminals and drug dealers.
"He's probably as tough on certain types of crime as anybody. The thinking of a lot of defense lawyers is that he'll be fair and give me a fair trial, but I better not lose this one," said Spencer Gordon, an assistant public defender in Baltimore County.
"He's basically feared," said another lawyer, who did not want to publicly criticize the judge and risk having his clients treated more harshly in court.
To relatives of the four students shot outside Randallstown High School last May, Cavanaugh is a hero.
The judge announced Matthew Timothy McCullough's sentence one charge at a time: four 25-year prison terms to be served consecutively on each count of assault on which McCullough was convicted in November. It was not immediately clear to some of those who packed Cavanaugh's courtroom for Thursday's sentencing hearing what had happened.
"What does that mean?" asked William Thomas Jr., whose son, William "Tippa" Thomas III, was helping a girl to safety after the shooting started when he was hit by two bullets in the neck, back and lung, leaving the football player partially paralyzed.
Told that it was a 100-year sentence and that McCullough, 18, will be 68 before he becomes eligible for a parole hearing, William Thomas Jr. breathed deeply. "That's awesome," he said. "It's awesome. If you look at the magnitude of the acts of violence for each of the individuals, it's a fair ruling."
In handing down the sentence, Cavanaugh spoke of the terror that students and teachers must have felt as they left a charity basketball game on a Friday afternoon in May and walked out of their school as gunfire erupted.
"As a parent, I can't even comprehend the horror or disbelief of all the people at the school - not just the ones who were shot," he said. "Even worse than that is to receive a phone call from police telling you to go to Sinai Hospital or Shock Trauma. Thank God nobody was killed."
Cavanaugh said the emotional toll of the shootings cannot be calculated. As he had done when announcing a 50-year prison sentence for Tyrone Devon Brown, 24, who admitted being the first man to open fire on Randallstown High's parking lot May 7, Cavanaugh characterized McCullough as a "suburban terrorist."
Cavanaugh does not grant interviews to reporters, his law clerk said Friday. But in interviews, a dozen prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who know Cavanaugh said the McCullough sentence reflects the judge's approach to justice.
"Pat is tough on crime," said William R. Evans, Cavanaugh's cousin, who shared a law office with him in Dundalk for two decades. "Is that a bad thing? I don't think so - and I'm a criminal defense attorney."
The son of a Bethlehem Steel foreman and a hospital nurse, Cavanaugh grew up in Dundalk and Baltimore, his cousin said. Cavanaugh graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1967, worked as a sales representative with General Electric Co. and for Harvey Hubbell Inc., and in 1974 earned a law degree from the University of Baltimore School of Law.
He opened his law practice in Dundalk in 1974, handling a wide variety of work, including a substantial number of divorce, custody, property disposition and other domestic cases. He and his wife of more than 30 years have three daughters.
It is that breadth of legal and life experience that shapes Cavanaugh's judicial temperament, many lawyers said.
Pointing out that he referred to his experience as a parent while explaining McCullough's sentence, S. Ann Brobst, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County who prosecuted the Randallstown cases, said, "That's what judges are supposed to do - bring their personal experience and feelings to bear. We can't have someone who just has this ivory tower loftiness."
Rachel Cogen, also an assistant state's attorney, remembers trying a murder case before Cavanaugh in 2003. The defendant, Rodney J. Alexander, was convicted of stabbing his estranged wife 31 times and beating her with a hammer.
"Life [in prison] wasn't the obvious sentence," Cogen said. "It should have been, because it was a brutal murder, but the defendant didn't have a record, and his defense was that it was self-defense."
In sentencing the man to life, however, Cavanaugh talked about the couple's 5-year-old daughter and how a crime had been committed not only against the murdered woman but also against the little girl, who witnessed the attack, the prosecutor said.
Some lawyers traced Cavanaugh's tough sentencing stance to his run for election to the Circuit Court bench in 2002.
"His platform was being tough on violent crime, and he's fulfilling his campaign promises," said David B. Irwin, a former prosecutor and 20-year defense attorney.
But others said that chalking up Cavanaugh's sentencing record to attempts to woo voters sells him short.
"This is what he is like," said T. Wray McCurdy, a criminal defense lawyer who knew Cavanaugh for 20 years while practicing on Baltimore County's east side. "He expected a lot from his clients, and he is the exact same person now as he was as an attorney."