Circuit Court Judge John N. Prevas. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
From the opening minutes of the sentencing hearing, it was clear that the judge was not well.
John N. Prevas leaned so far back in his chair that he disappeared from view of the fixed camera, which picked up only two portraits hanging behind the bench. Only occasionally, when the judge lurched forward, did his crop of white hair and thick glasses jump into view.
The judge apologized.
He told lawyers at Monday's half-hour hearing that he would sit upright "as soon as my lungs clear, so for the time being, I've been positioning myself most comfortably."
A few minutes after he sent Antoine Epps to prison for 50 years for a carjacking in July 2009 — and while the defendant whispered with his attorney over how he could challenge the ruling — a clerk turned to the judge and asked how he was holding up.
"So far, so good," Prevas responded.
The time on videotape showed 12 p.m. and 28 seconds.
Those were not the final public words Prevas uttered from the bench — his last were when he told attorneys waiting for the next case to be ready — but his tepid assurance of his health belied his true condition.
Two hours later, the 63-year-old judge complained of chest pains and an aide took him from his chamber at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on North Calvert Street to Mercy Medical Center, a block away.
He died shortly after 7 p.m., and his funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.
Even if Prevas' body was failing, his mind was clearly intact.
Though not speaking directly into the microphone, his words were loud and clear. He sparred with defense attorney Edwin MacVaugh and Assistant State's Attorney Sheryl D.H. Atkins over the intricate legal details of an appellate court ruling, and he ruled that jurors had not reached inconsistent verdicts on some of the counts.
When Epps expressed interest in addressing Prevas, his lawyer cautioned: "I recommend you remain polite. He will be deciding your future in a matter of minutes."
Prevas allowed the 21-year-old to speak until he had exhausted himself, explaining how he was "completely innocent" and had been set up by a man he rented the car from but who later wanted more money to buy drugs. Epps complained that his attorney had not told him all the facts, advised him against taking the witness stand and employed a trial strategy that he opposed.
After one pause, Prevas asked Epps: "Does that complete your presentation, sir?"
Epps answered: "I don't think so."
"What else do you have to say?" Prevas asked, allowing the commentary to continue.
"As far as sentencing goes, I would like anything that could help me out and make me a better person, so that when I get out I can go and lead a better life," Epps said. "I would like to get educated, drug treatment, something."
Epps then continued to say he had been framed.
"Thank you, sir," Prevas said when the defendant finally stopped.
The prosecutor, Atkins, reminded the judge that Epps was convicted of carjacking a man at gunpoint, a crime she described as "an extremely violent act."
Terrence Royster had given a ride to Epps, who then, with another man who has not been identified, put a gun to Royster's head and forced him into the trunk. They robbed him, beat him with a handgun and drove around the city for an hour.
When they stopped, Atkins said, they took Royster out of the trunk, stripped him naked "and beat him again." When it was over, the victim crawled to a nearby house seeking help. Police found him curled in a fetal position, bleeding from the head.
Prevas, known for his acute legal mind and photographic memory — as well as his love of Frank Zappa and karaoke — appeared to give Epps every benefit. During his soliloquy, the defendant said that during his trial, in a hallway outside courtroom, the victim looked at him and asked the prosecutor, "Who's that?"
The judge questioned Atkins, who denied that the encounter took place. Still, it was an effort by the judge to ensure that the defendant was heard on his claims that the victim's identification of him in court was a lie. Satisfied with the prosecutor's response, he turned to the task at hand.
Defense attorney MacVaugh asked for a prison sentence of 12 to 25 years.
Atkins asked for 70 years.
Prevas gave Epps 50 years, no time suspended, which included 30 years for the armed carjacking and a 20-year consecutive sentence for using a handgun in commission of felony. The judge let Epps and his attorney talk it over and ultimately file appeals of the conviction and the sentence.
MacVaugh said that though he doesn't like Prevas' sentence, "he did what he thought was right." And he noted that "even in his last moments on the bench, he was patient. He allowed my client to spew anything he wanted."
It was while MacVaugh was chatting with his client about appeals that the clerk asked Prevas how he felt and received the "So far, so good" reply.
Then Prevas ordered people in the next case to get ready for court.
The court hearing for Epps concluded at 12:01 and 38 seconds.
It would be the judge's last.