Verdict for man, system

Judge makes it clear he'll have plenty to say about how prison handled inmate

June 09, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

When a twice-convicted killer in solitary confinement spent an entire night standing at his cell door talking to himself, a physician ordered that he be returned to the prison system's psychiatric facility. That decision was overturned.

Sixteen days later, he was seated among other prisoners - not in an isolation cage - for an early-morning drive along the dark interstates that stretch between Hagerstown and Baltimore while correctional officers read the paper and watched TV. Kevin G. Johns Jr. emerged from the bus in a bloody shirt and restraints so loose that an assistant warden worried that he would step right out of them.

The judge who heard all this during Johns' eight-day capital murder trial is a history buff who recites literature from the bench as often as he quotes U.S. Supreme Court justices. He doesn't hesitate to take government agencies to task when he finds they've erred.

And he spent so much time in Maryland's prisons in the 1970s and '80s as counsel to the Division of Correction that he jokes that he could find his way around several of them blindfolded.

Harford County Circuit Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. says he will not only decide whether Johns should be sent to the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital or face a sentencing hearing for the strangling of another inmate aboard the prison bus in 2005. He also will have something to say about the prison system's handling of an inmate who even prosecutors concede suffers from serious psychiatric illnesses.

Plitt is scheduled to announce his verdicts in the nonjury trial today.

"Nobody knows the Maryland correctional system better than Emory," said Dennis M. Sweeney, a retired Howard County judge who was his boss in the attorney general's office when Plitt represented the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "No one understands the limitations of that system and how security is handled - or mishandled - better. ... He doesn't come at this from a naive point of view."

Throughout the trial, Plitt asked pointed questions of several witnesses, zeroing in on the ignored order of a prison psychiatrist, the scant services available to Johns as a teenager when he was released from a mental health treatment center and the inattention of the guards on the bus as it rumbled toward Baltimore on Feb. 2, 2005, the morning that 21-year-old Philip E. Parker Jr. was killed.

"There were issues that came up that I think need to be addressed," Plitt said last week during an interview in his Bel Air chambers. "And rightly or wrongly, I'm going to address them."

Colleagues, attorneys and others who know the 65-year-old judge describe him as a quick-witted and extremely smart man who chats as easily with sheriff's deputies and reporters as he does with the chief judge of Maryland's highest court. And he sometimes peppers lawyers with the kinds of questions that they more regularly field at the appellate level - often with a wry smile.

"He is a judge who remains a regular guy - and you can't say that about everybody you send to the bench," said Stephen B. Caplis, a former assistant attorney general who defended the state with Plitt against a series of federal prison overcrowding lawsuits in the 1970s and '80s. "Emory loves judging because it was an aspiration of his, even back then. He'd talk back then about how great it would be if he was ever honored by being appointed to the court."

The son of a newspaper pressroom foreman, Plitt was born and raised in Baltimore. "Now they call it Barre Circle and all those fancy names, but when I was there they called it Pigtown," the judge said of his childhood neighborhood.

In 1954, Plitt's parents moved with him and his twin brothers to Arbutus, where they lived just around the corner from the family of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Not long after graduating from law school, Plitt took a job with the Maryland Attorney General's Office and was quickly assigned to work in the unit that represented the Maryland State Police, the state's 24 sheriffs and its prisons.

He helped defend the state against class-action lawsuits filed in federal court in the 1970s by inmates of four prisons. The cases challenged the living conditions of the facilities, including the practice of housing two inmates in a single cell, crowding, noise levels, medical care, program activities and access to courts.

With nearly a dozen years of court hearings and appeals, the lawsuits prompted significant changes at the prisons - including the demolition of a wing of the Maryland Penitentiary that was dubbed "the innermost circle of hell" by a former state attorney general - and the construction of new correctional facilities.

Plitt also handled a case in which the U.S. Justice Department challenged the Maryland State Police over its lack of women and minorities in one of the first such lawsuits in the country against a law enforcement agency.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.