Judge John Prevas, chief judge of city Circuit Court, dies

He was recalled as an old-school jurist

  • Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas.
Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
October 26, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Judge John Prevas loved the music of rockers Steely Dan and sang most Wednesdays at Southeast Baltimore karaoke bars. He was recalled Tuesday as an old-school, tough jurist who knew his law inside and out and could also argue baseball trivia with the best. Judge Prevas, the chief judge of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, died of a heart attack Monday night at Mercy Medical Center. He was 63.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called the judge "a friend, an adviser," adding that "Baltimore has lost a truly great man."

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of an attorney, Konstantine "Gus" Prevas, who survives him and lives in Baltimore. The family all put in time at the Broadway Market stall operated by Judge Prevas' grandfather, also named John Prevas, who sailed from Trapezondi in the Greek state of Laconia to begin a new career in Baltimore. The elder Prevas opened a hot dog, milkshake and confectionery stall in Fells Point's Broadway Market in 1898. The judge's late mother, Caroline Larios Prevas, ran the stall until 1982.

"John worked nights and weekends at that stall until he was 31," said his wife, Antonia Keane, a Loyola University Maryland sociologist. "The customers didn't know it, but they were being waited on by two attorneys and a medical school student."

Senator Mikulski recalled him selling Polish hot dogs while a law school student.

"I was so proud to watch him become one of Baltimore's great jurists," she said. "He was a brilliant lawyer who also had street smarts and savvy and was an astute student of politics and people."

She said he used his "formidable intellect" to help her "devise a strategy to beat the political machine in my first run for the Baltimore City Council."

"In recent years, he often gave me wonderful ideas and advice on criminal justice matters at the federal level — from domestic violence to criminal sentencing guidelines," she said.

Judge Prevas was raised in Hamilton on Glenmore Avenue and was a 1964 City College graduate. He earned a degree at Syracuse University and wanted to go into radio as a disc jockey. He was turned down for an on-air post at the school because he was told his Baltimore accent was too strong. He then earned a law degree at the University of Maryland.

He was a baseball fan and followed the Orioles. His brother, attorney Peter Prevas of Baltimore, recalled his enthusiasm for the 1966 Orioles team that won the World Series.

"He'd work the day shift at the market and we'd go to a game," Peter Prevas said.

In 1972, he became an assistant state's attorney. He left the post for a year in 1975 to help manage the successful U.S. Senate campaign of Paul S. Sarbanes.

Then-city State's Attorney Kurt L. Schmoke named him to a newly formed narcotics division in 1983.

In June 1986, Gov. Harry R. Hughes selected Judge Prevas for the seat formerly occupied by retiring Judge Milton B. Allen.

"He had a photographic legal mind and could cite even the specific page number for a specific decision," said his former deputy law clerk, Thomas Maronick Jr., an attorney who lives in Towson. "Judge would literally read case law to lawyers who challenged his rulings, sometimes at 45-minute stretches."

Mr. Maronick said the judge "always wanted to know what the jurors thought, what they found convincing and what they rejected." His former clerk said the judge "always remained a student of the game."

Colleagues said that as a prosecutor, he said of himself, "I always did my homework. I took nothing for granted. I followed the trail of evidence."

After becoming a judge, he was known to allow attorneys a free hand to present their cases.

"He could be a hard sentencer, but he always allowed the defense to do its best job to present its evidence," Mr. Maronick said.

Judge Prevas presided over numerous cases though he rarely made reference to the fact that he had himself been a city crime victim, shot in the arm with a blast from a shotgun in 1972. It was a life-changing event.

He told a Baltimore Sun reporter he had been "discussing the increase in crime with a couple of longshoreman friends" at the Essex Cafe on Essex Street. In 2002, he recounted the event in The Sun. The four robbers entered the bar from two different doors — one with a revolver, one with a sawed-off shotgun, one with a handgun some witnesses took for a starter pistol, and one who was unarmed.

"I'm sure I would have gone into private practice had it not been for that," he said in 2002. "I didn't go into the military, so this was sort of my own personal combat experience. It was an important moment in my life. It gave me greater empathy with crime victims. Before I was shot, I had viewed trials and court procedure as dry academic matters. I guess once I had my own brush with crime, I had a more realistic appreciation of what people were going through."

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