A Baltimore circuit judge, who has three times been the subject of judicial disciplinary investigations, ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for crying out "love you" to her handcuffed brother in the courtroom - and then reversed himself after a public defender spoke up on her behalf.
As Tamika Clevenger left a Baltimore courtroom Friday, she shouted, "Love you, Nick," which set off Judge Alfred Nance. He ordered a sheriff to pull Clevenger from the hallway and found the 24-year-old in contempt.
Nance undid the sentence about a half-hour later at the request of Jill Trivas, a public defender who was in court for a different case but told Nance she felt that he had been too harsh.
"I respect Judge Nance a lot; he's one of the judges here who will give you a fair trial," Trivas said. "But it still upset me to see this girl get locked up. She had started to cry. She had children who were dependent upon her."
Nance, Judge Marcella Holland, who is in charge of Baltimore Circuit Court, and Judge John P. Miller, who presides over the criminal docket, did not return messages seeking comment Monday.
According to a video recording of the proceeding, the confrontation began after Clevenger stood in the back of Nance's courtroom, blew a kiss to Nicholas Jones, waved goodbye and then began talking and motioning to a woman in the same row.
"Ma'am, your talking is over," Nance said. Turning his ire to the other woman, who had stood up from the bench in a strapless top, Nance said, "Young lady, step in the hall. The beach is three blocks down and to the right. It's not in this courtroom."
As Clevenger walked out with the woman, she yelled "love you" to Jones, prompting Nance to order a sheriff to bring her back.
Nance asked Clevenger her name and age, and then swiftly pronounced the punishment: "Ten days, Baltimore City Detention Center."
"I didn't do nothing," a shocked Clevenger said.
"You yelled out in my courtroom," Nance replied. "I love you, too. Ten days, Baltimore City Detention Center. Take her. Don't bring that stuff in my house. Period."
Worried about her child at home, Clevenger began to cry.
"Your baby will be there" when you get out, Nance said. "You want me to send him to social services? I'll send him [to jail] too."
Nance, 61, is known for demanding proper attire and etiquette from anyone in his courtroom.
"Attorneys are hard-pressed to complain because they fear retaliation," said Page Croyder, a former deputy state's attorney who ran for judge in 1998, in part, because of allegations of improper conduct against Nance. "Attorneys know perfectly well that nothing is going to happen to these judges."
In 2000, a commission that monitors judges' conduct interviewed four women, then current or former prosecutors, who complained of Nance's explosive temper and said he had made comments about their appearance and touched their faces, according to a December 2000 Sun article. At that time, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy complained about his behavior.
The Commission on Judicial Disabilities issued a reprimand, finding that he had demeaned women in court and in chambers and had been "rude" and "hostile" to attorneys in a medical malpractice case.
A brief review by The Baltimore Sun of video from Friday morning's docket revealed other questionable comments before Nance's confrontation with Clevenger.
At one point, Nance suggested to a female public defender that "he must be in for a good spanking" because the woman had "never yelled" at him "that softly before." The attorney, Anne-Marie Gering, had merely announced her presence at the trial table.
"A reprimand doesn't mean anything to people like this," Croyder said. "The commission does nothing to people."
Others have accused him of improper comments during jury selection, saying that he forced women to announce their marital status and once told a prospective juror, who was single, to "stand up and let us see [you]. ... There may be a single guy out there," according to a 2000 Sun article.
By that time, Nance, three years into his tenure on the bench, had been forced to take "corrective action" - the details of which were never released - after jailing an attorney for leaving his courtroom for six minutes.
Allegations surfaced again in 2004 when Nance was accused of massaging a young prosecutor's shoulder and criticizing the way a prospective juror wore his yarmulke, a Jewish head covering, in court. After publicly defending himself against allegations of misconduct, the commission dismissed the charges.
On Friday, Nance accused Clevenger of bringing "the streets" into his courtroom and that Trivas cared about her more than Clevenger cared about herself.
"Judge Nance had warned the audience not to speak out or act out, and I had warned Ms. Clevenger myself after she had spoken up in another courtroom and been admonished by the judge there for her behavior," said Creston P. Smith, the attorney for Jones, who is facing felony drug charges.
Nance asked Clevenger where she lived. When she said the Flag House Courts projects in East Baltimore, Nance said he had "family that lives in Flag House" and began to list his local roots, saying he had attended elementary school on Federal Street, junior high on Harford Road and high school on North Avenue.
"You don't see any part of those streets in my courtroom," Nance told her. "I sent all kinds of signals that you don't do and handle yourself in my courtroom the way you handle yourself on the street."
He concluded by telling her that Trivas' goodness was the only reason he was granting her freedom.