Judge defends his actions in marrying couple in assault case

Says he was guided by his 'Catholic conscience'

March 31, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch | Baltimore Sun reporter

The Baltimore County judge who was suspended from hearing cases after presiding over the marriage of an alleged domestic assault victim and her accused attacker is defending his actions, saying he was guided by his "Catholic conscience" in choosing to marry the couple and "legitimize their relationship."

In his first public comments about the case, District Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. said in an interview Tuesday he did not know the seriousness of the assault charge against Frederick D. Wood, 29, of Middle River, who had been accused by his fiancee, Shelly Pearl Say, 27, of beating and kicking her. Russell said his mistake was presiding over both the marriage, in his chambers in the Essex courthouse, and the second-degree assault case against Wood, which he heard later that afternoon. Russell found Wood not guilty, after Say exercised her right not to testify against her new husband.

Russell, 68, who was recently confirmed for a third 10-year term by the state Senate, said he knew Wood faced a second-degree assault charge, and surmised it was a domestic abuse case, but "I had no idea how serious it was" because he had not read the case file, his standard practice. He said Say denied being abused in an interview in his chambers.

He'd been urged by court administrators to say nothing, but decided to speak up because he felt his side of the story was not being heard, Russell said.

"I think it's unfair, if you weren't there, to make a judgment," he said.

Advocates for women, who were adamant in condemning the judge earlier this month, said his statements do not resolve their complaint that he overstepped his bounds and failed to treat the case with the seriousness the assault charge deserved.

"It's remarkable that a judge would try to excuse himself and end up demonstrating that he still doesn't understand domestic violence," Lisae C. Jordan, general counsel for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said after reading comments Russell wrote in a five-paragraph e-mail Monday to Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks.

The House of Ruth Maryland and the Women's Law Center of Maryland have jointly filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities against Russell, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in December 1990.

Russell, who has been placed on administrative duties while the matter is investigated, said Wood's lawyer asked for a postponement March 10 so the couple could marry, making clear that Say intended to invoke her spousal privilege. At that point, Russell said, the die was cast.

"They're going to get married, no matter what I do," said Russell. He said if he granted the postponement, the couple would have taken the time to get married, and if he denied it, the defense would have had the right to ask for a jury trial, which would have given them time to marry.

"What I did was a third option which cut to the chase," Russell said in the e-mail.

Russell said he was not being completely serious when he volunteered to marry Wood and Say, and said he was "astounded" when Wood's attorney agreed. He said he was surprised again when the couple returned from Towson with the license that afternoon, having assumed they would need to wait 48 hours for the license, as required by law.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill later said he was not aware of the circumstances when he waived the required 48-hour waiting period for the couple, who have been together more than seven years and have two children.

Once the two returned to his courtroom, Russell said in the e-mail, "I felt I owed it to them to at least talk to them. I took them back in my chambers and questioned them thoroughly before deciding that they were indeed sincere and why not legitimize their relationship and their children. It was perhaps my Catholic conscience. This was not a woman in any way in fear for her safety. ... Incidentally, she has since called to thank me."

During that conversation in his chambers, Russell said, "she denied everything," and he did not have the case file with him, nor had he seen it. In keeping with his usual practice as a way to avoid bias, he said he did not look at the file before hearing the evidence presented in court. Since Say declined to testify, no evidence was ever presented and Russell did not review the file until later. "I had no idea what transpired until I saw the file," Russell said.

Before dawn on Nov. 29, police were called to Wood's house on South Hawthorne Road in Middle River, where Say claimed that Wood hit her in the face, kicked her, banged her head against a wall, then dragged her through the house by the feet.

The police officer noted in his report that "I found several visible injuries to victim, including a bloody nose, and a swollen left side of her face near her eye."

Dorothy Lennig, director of the legal clinic at the House of Ruth Maryland, said "there was a fair amount of injury. That's pretty scary."

By volunteering to perform the marriage, Russell could have inadvertently coerced the woman, Lennig said.

"The judge, I think, can give the impression 'OK, that's what I have to do,' " Lennig said.

Russell said he sees many domestic abuse charges that are "spurious," but Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said he prejudged this case.

"Our position is all these cases should be taken seriously," Cohen said, adding that such cases can often be prosecuted without the victim's testimony. "We don't know what other evidence there might have been...The likelihood is if [abuse] has occurred it will occur again."

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