A court of justice?
By Joel E. Gordon
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.
When crime occurs, it’s easy to blame the police. In reality, when crime occurs, it is the responsibility of the police to bring criminal investigations to a conclusion that may or may not result in criminal charges. Officers must work through a maze of rules about engagement and seizure of evidence to make cases that are valid to the court. Then, it’s up to prosecutors to bring or validate charges, and up to our judges to adjudicate same. When will we start to hold our courts accountable for their actions?
Even as a high school student, I possessed a pretty clear understanding of our three branches of government. I was fortunate enough to be selected to serve in the YMCA sponsored Maryland Youth and Governments Model Legislature in Annapolis, Maryland. This experience provided a great insight into the legislative branch of government. As a police officer, a member of our government’s executive branch, nothing could have ever prepared me in advance for the full effect and power of the judicial branch of government.
In 1980’s Baltimore City, every ninety days the judges would be rotated throughout the cities’ district courthouses. For three months, a sixty-something judge would preside over my West Baltimore cases. Red faced, the judge would look over his glasses, down at the defendants before him, and simply ask, “Do you have anything to say? If the police arrested you, I know you are guilty.” Everyone was guilty and many were sent to jail. Crime would go down as a result of his tenure.
Next up was a thirty-something judge, who would stop in the middle of testimony to go to chambers, calling his stockbroker to transact a stock purchase. Always with a Wall Street Journal in hand on the bench, he told me and my colleagues, “You’re a police officer and all police officers are liars. I don’t believe you.” Everyone was not guilty. Crime went up. The merits of any case had no merit. These cases were all pre-judged.
Despite the best efforts of those of us in law enforcement, how often have we seen a violent criminal let loose on society, prematurely resulting in further violence and criminal acts? I have experienced this firsthand.
Take the time I arrested a man for breaking his girlfriend’s ribcage, and then his attempt to stab me. Once in jail, he broke the cellblock toilet. He was charged with all three crimes.
At trial, the judge found him guilty. Sentencing was 90 days for assaulting his girlfriend, a consecutive 30 days for breaking the toilet, and a concurrent 30 days for trying to stab me with his knife. The prosecuting attorney turned to me in open court and said, “Officer, isn’t it nice to know you’re worth as much as a toilet?”
The man had a lengthy criminal arrest record, including numerous crimes of violence. He was released after 15 days in jail and promptly threw another police officer down a flight of stairs in the exact same location where I had arrested him before.
Now this: For at least the third time, Maryland’s panel that oversees judges’ conduct has publicly moved to discipline a longtime Baltimore judge for alleged, inappropriate behavior on the bench. Judge Alfred J. Nance, 68, who is currently the chief judge for Baltimore, was charged with a series of “persistently disrespectful and unprofessional” interactions with a public defender.
Then, there were claims that someone witnessed this judge incorrectly insist that Baltimore’s North Avenue ran north and south, and told an officer he was not credible, bordering a perjury charge, and contempt for proving via map and compass that North Avenue does indeed run east and west.
In the past, Nance has ordered a spectator to jail for 10 days for saying “Love you” to a handcuffed brother in the courtroom. Worried about a child at home, another woman began to cry, “Your baby will be there when you get out”.
Nance had replied, “You want me to send him [the baby] to social services? I’ll send him [to jail], too.” He also has reportedly ordered a woman out of his courtroom for wearing a strapless shirt stating: This is not the beach.
In a response to the commission, Nance denied that he had violated the Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct and asked for the charges to be dismissed. A public hearing is scheduled this July on the charges, and the Commission will decide whether Nance has committed sanctionable conduct.
We need to hold our judges accountable for ensuring that all live up to our rights and responsibilities. Our safety and well-being must not be unnecessarily compromised, resulting from jurists gone awry now, or in the future.
Joel E. Gordon is a former Field Training Officer with the Baltimore City Police Department and is a past Chief of Police for the city of Kingwood, West Virginia. He is author of the book Still Seeking Justice: One Officer’s Story, and has been a feature columnist in the Morgantown West Virginia Dominion Post newspaper. He is the founder of the Facebook group Police Authors Seeking Justice. Look him up at stillseekingjustice.com