Retired Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., who during his years on the bench developed a reputation for being even-keeled and fair-minded to all sides and had the distinction of presiding over the longest murder trial in the history of Maryland, died Sunday of renal failure at Carroll Hospital Center.
The longtime Westminster resident was 79.
"Judge Burns was a very personable individual who was completely free of any haughtiness or phoniness. He was both a very genuine person and judge," said Thomas E. Hickman, who served as Carroll County state's attorney from 1974 to 1995 and is now in private practice.
"He was an incredibly fair man, and that came through in every trial," recalled Mr. Hickman.
Luke Kenny Burns Jr., the son of Luke Kenny Burns Sr., chief fuel agent for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and Mary Jane Reed Burns, a registered nurse, was born in Baltimore and raised on Augusta Avenue in Irvington.
After graduating in 1951 from Loyola High School, he planned to study for the priesthood and entered the seminary program in 1953 at Fordham University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1957.
After graduating from college, he attended several seminaries and withdrew when he was 26 to pursue a career in law. In 1964, he earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore and was admitted to the Maryland Bar.
He began practicing law in Baltimore, and in 1972 moved to Westminster, when he joined Stanford Hoff and Charles E. Stoner, a law school friend, in their practice.
In 1978, when a second District Court judgeship was created in Carroll County, he was appointed to the post.
A year later, Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed Judge Burns to the Circuit Court for Carroll County.
"I think my main concern in the past year has been to try and treat everyone equally, courteously and show respect for them. I think that's important," Judge Burns told The Baltimore Sun in 1979, when he joined the Circuit Court.
"A great soft-spoken man, Judge Burns is often described by attorneys working with him as a 'judge with a touch of humanity,' " The Sun reported at the time of his Circuit Court appointment.
Judge Burns threw himself into his work, often working 72-hour weeks.
"Luke really was a kind and compassionate person," said Carroll County District Judge JoAnn M. Ellinghaus-Jones, who began clerking for Judge Burns in 1981.
"When I was clerking for him, we had a big snowstorm and he drove his Cadillac through the blizzard to get me so I wouldn't be alone," said Judge Ellinghaus-Jones. "And later on when I got married and had kids, my children did not have grandparents, and he'd go to school with them on Grandparents Day. He was such a sweet man, which came naturally to him."
One of Judge Burns' more vivid and memorable cases was a murder-for-hire case in 1982, which resulted in Judge Burns giving the defendant, Robert L. Myers, a life sentence.
"He presided over what was and still is the longest murder trial in the history of Maryland. It went on for 72 days," recalled Mr. Hickman, who prosecuted Myers.
"He agonized over difficult cases, especially sexual and child abuse cases. His mind couldn't accept how people could do that to each other," said Judge Ellinghaus-Jones.
"I've tried to be eminently fair in any case — the little ones all the way up to the big ones — and I hope I have been," Judge Burns told The Sun in 2004, when he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. "I certainly know I can't please everybody. That's totally impossible. But I certainly have given my all in trying to get things right.
"You cannot show favoritism. You have to restrain your emotions to give a fair trial, even when sometimes you're on the verge of tears," he said.