Judge marries defendant to alleged victim

Balto. County jurist dismisses case, is reassigned

March 18, 2010|By Nicole Fuller | nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

A Baltimore County judge was reassigned Wednesday after he presided over the marriage between a man being prosecuted for domestic violence and the alleged victim - a marriage 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, 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 Tuesday.

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 on Russell's actions or on whether 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'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 apparently ignored evidence in the case - the police report detailing the woman's injuries and her initial statement. Although the victim refused to testify against her alleged attacker - a common scenario in domestic violence cases - judges don't necessarily need victim testimony at trial for a conviction, Alexander said.

"[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 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 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 he had hit her in the face, kicked her and banged her head against a wall. 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 woman 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 woman 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.

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

Ryan declined to comment specifically on the judge's actions, but he said, "We take instances of domestic violence very, very seriously, and we're very concerned any time we aren't able to fully prosecute."Russell, who has been an associate judge of the District Court in Baltimore County since 1990, was endorsed by the Women's Legislative Caucus for a seat on the Circuit Court bench in 1999. The governor at the time, Parris N. Glendening, appointed someone else.

The next year, Russell was also an unsuccessful candidate for a seat on the Circuit Court.

In 2000, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun, Russell sentenced a Dundalk carpenter to five years in prison for launching into a profanity-laced tirade after the judge ordered him to pay his mother $120 restitution. Triplin, the public defender, filed a petition arguing that Russell's sentence was illegal. A second judge agreed and released the man from jail.

An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect day of when WBAL-TV first reported the judge's actions. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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