Judge officiates wedding of domestic violence defendant, alleged victim before trial

Baltimore County District judge is reassigned to work on civil cases in his chamber

March 17, 2010|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

A Baltimore County judge was reassigned Wednesday after he officiated a marriage between a man being prosecuted for domestic violence and the alleged victim — an action that led to the man's acquittal.

Baltimore County District Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. took the unusual step last week of allowing the defendant to leave court to obtain a marriage license and married the couple later in his chambers. About 20 minutes later, his new wife invoked marital privilege, so she would not be required to testify against her husband.

The case came to an end with the judge finding the defendant not guilty and saying, "I found you not guilty, so I can't sentence you as a defendant in any crimes, but earlier today, I sentenced you to life married to her."

WBAL-TV was the first to report the judge's actions Wednesday.

Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn reassigned Russell to work in his chamber reviewing motions for civil cases, said Angelita Plemmer, the court's spokeswoman.

Plemmer declined to comment specifically on Russell's actions or if Russell, who has been on the bench since 1990, has been disciplined previously.

Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said she was "appalled" by the judge's conduct, but added that she was pleased that Clyburn "took very swift and appropriate action in this case."

"For [Russell] to intervene in this way, and to basically provide, in a sense, a defense for this man ... it's just so unbelievable," Cohen said. "How could this case be fairly prosecuted when the judge is offering the respondent a way to avoid prosecution?"

Carole Alexander, a clinical instructor at the University of Maryland Baltimore's School of Social Work and a former executive director of the House of Ruth, a domestic violence shelter, said the disciplinary action against Russell should go further.

Alexander also questioned why the judge seemingly ignored the evidence in the case — the police report detailing the woman's injuries and her initial statement — despite the victim's refusal to testify against her alleged attacker, a common scenario in domestic violence cases.

"[Russell], with intent, behaved in a way to potentially put this victim at far greater risk and he did that as a member of the bar and an officer of the court," said Alexander. "And it's absolutely inappropriate for him to in any way collaborate with this alleged perpetrator. It's bizarre. It's dangerous. And I think he should be removed from the bench."

The reassignment came after a report on WBAL-TV on Wednesday chronicling the court hearing March 10 in Baltimore County District Court in Essex. According to the report, Frederick D. Wood, 29, of Middle River appeared in court to face a second-degree assault charge, stemming from an alleged domestic violence incident between Wood and his fiancee. Wood pleaded not guilty.

Police were called to Wood's home in the first block of S. Hawthorne Road on Nov. 29, and his fiancee told police that Wood smacked her in the face, kicked her and banged her head against a wall and then dragged her. The officer noted, according to the news report, that the woman had a bloody nose.

In court last week, Wood's lawyer asked Russell for a postponement to allow Wood and the alleged victim to get married, so that the victim could invoke marital privilege.

"He's asking for a postponement so he can go out and get married, come back and resolve the case," said the defense attorney. "His wife will then invoke her privilege."

Russell replied, "Well, why don't I just marry them today in court?"

Wood obtained a marriage license late that morning, and two hours later, the judge married Wood and the alleged victim in his office.

Wood's criminal case then resumed with the judge saying, "I just married them — performed the ceremony — back in my chambers."

Russell, Wood and Wood's attorney, who is identified in online court records as a public defender, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. Thelma J. Triplin, Baltimore County district public defender, did not respond to a call seeking comment late Wednesday.

A representative from the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which investigates allegations of judge misconduct, also could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Plemmer, the chief judge's spokeswoman, said, "The Maryland Judiciary does not support domestic violence; we do not condone it any way. And the Maryland Judiciary certainly has a long track record in terms of putting measures in place for the protection of domestic violence victims to ensure public safety."

Leo Ryan, deputy Baltimore County state's attorney, said that although he had not yet read or listened to a transcript of the hearing, the news report "confirms what our prosecutor told us about what happened."

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