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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

SERIOUS JUSTICE

I feel much empathy for Judge Charles G. Bernstein, sitting in his Eighth Circuit Court, Part 12, Criminal Division, last month, when Corrections Officer Deborah Barron attempted to explain to him what her morning had been like. It must have immediatly occurred to his honor that he was not going to like what he was about to hear, and he must have suspected right from the start that there wasn’t a lot that he could do about it. But this is the story that he was forced to sit through.
Officer Barron began by explaining that at 9AM that morning she had escorted prisoner Marcus Anderson from the reception area of the minimum security Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Maryland, and delivered him a half block away to the Brockbridge Correctional Facility, also minimum security, where Anderson was to be collected by a corrections department “road crew” for transportation to the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse on North Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore, a distance of 17.63 miles, where Anderson was to appear before Judge Bernstein on a parole violation hearing. But when Officer Barron and Prisoner Anderson arrived at the Brockbridge Facility the road crew had already left. And when Officer Barron informed her supervisor by phone of the missed connection the supervisor replied, “Oh, Lord. Okay” and promptly hung up. Officer Barron then testified that as a 19 year employee of the Corrections Department she considered the response “Oh, Lord. Okay” as an indication that she should deliver the prisoner on her own, even though she had never been asked to do so before. As she explained it, the supervisor didn’t specifically tell her not to deliver the prisoner so she presumed he must have wanted her to.
So without any further instructions or authorization, Officer Barron loaded the six foot three inch, two hundred twenty pound twenty-two year old convicted drug dealer Marcus Anderson not into a "paddy wagon" or even a van with cages in the back but into the passenger seat of a standard corrections department van and headed off for Baltimore. As Judge Bernstein shook his head in amazement, Officer Barron described how she had followed I-95 north for six miles before getting onto I-395 and then onto the Howard Street exit in downtown Baltimore. She had almost reached the courthouse she explained, and had in fact paused at the stop light at the intersection of Baltimore and South streets, when prisoner Anderson suddenly and without warning opened the passenger side door (which was unlocked) and leapt from the van.
And it was not until this moment that it had occurred to Officer Barron that not only was the prisoner not shackled or even handcuffed, the van did not have a radio and she did not even have a cell phone with which to notify the Department of Corrections or the Baltimore Police Department that her prisoner had escaped. So, while Judge Bernstein listened with his head in his hands, Officer Barron explained “…there was nothing for me to do but to proceed. I had a green light. Vehicles were blowing their horns. I reported to the garage [at the courthouse] ... and notified the sheriff, the Jessup Pre-Release Unit and 911."
It was a sorrowful tale, indeed. Prisoner Anderson was last seen running through the crowded streets of Baltimore (where he lives) wearing a light blue Division of Corrections v-neck shirt and tennis shoes. And Officer Barron was left, so to speak, holding the bag. But oddly enough Officer Barron’s tale did not bring tears to Judge Bernstein’s eyes. Instead, with evident sarcasm, he asked if perhaps Officer Barron had given Prisoner Anderson bus tokens, to aid in his escape. Luckily Officer Barron assumed this was a rhetorical question and did not attempt an answer. Then Judge Bernstein suggested that, “If I were a young enterprising criminal, I'd come to Baltimore to set up my practice. This is the place to be. This is the Promised Land." And to the world weary Judge, so it must seem.A jury later convicted Marcus Anderson "in absentia" of being a convicted felon in procession of a firearm and transporting a firearm in a motor vehicle. He faces five years without parole as well as the three years he was already facing for violating his parole on the drug conviction. Felony escape charges are still pending, since nobody has seen Marcus Anderson since he was remanded into the custody of Officer Barron. Yes, a sad tale indeed.A much more engaging tale was recently presented to Judge Brigitte Koppenhoefer, one of the most respected members of the Superior Court in Dusseldorph, Germany. Normally Judge Koppenhoefer presides over complicated cases involving corporate law and dealing with hundreds of millions of Duetchmarks and Euros, such the Mannersmann trial she just completed against Duetsche Bank and its CEO Josef Ackerman. But as the summer vacations came around Judge Koppenhoefer found herself rotated by luck to decide a simple property dispute between two neighbors. The honorable judge listened with a straight face as the litigants detailed the escalation of conflict between them, as their war of words escalated to insult filled letters, to letters adorned with cockroaches, followed by an actual egg fight, culminating in the express delivery of packages filled with feces. And through it all Judge Koppenhoefer maintained her judicial restraint, and a straight face. But then, as the litigants were overcome with emotion and began to shout at each other across her courtroom, describing each other as schinehunds, smelly bum and donkey face, poor Judge Kippenhoefer lost her composure and burst out laughing. She was forced to call for a brief adjournment so she could retire to her chambers and release the belly laughs she had been restraining. Five minutes later the Judge resumed the bench, but just long enough to dismiss the case as “ridiculous” and hit the plaintiff with a $750 fine for having wasted the court's time with the whole mess. At which time Judge Koppenhofer repeated, “This was just so ridiculous.” It is a phrase that should be displayed above the front door of every law school in the world. And maybe it should be on the bar exam, too, just as a reminder.

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