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Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr.

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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.

Judge Burns' favorite cases were adoptions. After completing the adoption proceedings, he would hold a baby or stand with a child and their family while a photograph was taken, which he then added to a gallery he kept on the walls of his chambers.

"Luke loved custody and adoption cases ... because they were so uplifting and happy occasions," said Judge Michael M. Galloway, the administrative judge for the Circuit Court of Carroll County.

"He was probably the finest judge I've had the pleasure of being in front of and knowing," said Edward M. "Ed" Ulsch, who was deputy state's attorney for Carroll County from 1976 to 1995 and is now in private practice.

"He was courteous and very kind to people. He treated all with respect, even a person who had committed a heinous crime," said Mr. Ulsch. "And he never upstaged or scolded a lawyer in the courtroom. You had to work hard to make him angry. He just had a fine temperament."

He added: "He had the respect of his peers, and when he tried a case, it always resulted in a fair disposition for everyone, the victim, their family and all litigants. I think a lot of that came from that wonderful Jesuit background of his."

At the time of his death, Judge Burns was still working as a visiting judge and presided over cases in Carroll and Howard counties.

"When he retired, he was immediately called back, and he was the first judge they'd call," said Judge Ellinghaus-Jones. "If the docket was heavy, he never complained. He'd just grab a can of Coca-Cola and some candy, and go to work."

Judge Burns was an avid reader, sports fan, gardener, golfer and traveler.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John's Roman Catholic Church, 43 Monroe St., Westminster.

Judge Burns is survived by his wife of 14 years, the former Marcia King; a son, Robert M. Burns of Nashville, Tenn.; a daughter, Nancy Reilly of Philadelphia; a stepson, Parker Leimbach of Westminster; a stepdaughter, Ashley Baker of New Oxford, Pa.; eight grandchildren; and five step-grandchildren. His wife of 20 years, the former Sally Searing, died in 1989. A first marriage ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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