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The marrying judge explains himself

Dan Rodricks

11:30 AM EDT, March 30, 2010

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G. Darrell Russell Jr., the Baltimore County District Court judge who married the defendant in an assault case to the woman he was accused of beating, has been condemned by advocates for abused women, ordered to desk duty by his superiors and suggested for retirement by this columnist. He's also remained silent about the three-week-old controversy, on the advice of District Court leadership.

Until now.

Judge Russell, who has been on the bench for two decades, took time out Monday from "doing other judges' paperwork" to explain his actions on March 10. He did so in an e-mail and a phone call. In both, he acknowledges poor judgment, but says he's not the abettor of abuse some have made him out to be. First of all, Judge Russell wants everyone to know, the idea of the defendant and his alleged victim taking marriage vows--thus allowing the victim to invoke marital privilege and not testify against her new husband -- was not the judge's idea.

"It was defense counsel who asked for a postponement so the couple could wed," Judge Russell said. "I had two options -- grant the postponement, whereby they would be wed and later she would not testify, or deny the postponement and the public defender would pray a jury trial, thus giving the defendant a three-week postponement and plenty of time to marry. What I did was a third option, which cut to the chase -- I expedited the inevitable. It's a mentality engendered by big dockets in Essex [District Court] and the necessity of moving cases."

He called it "acting in the interest of judicial economy."

But Judge Russell also acknowledged what I referenced in Sunday's column -- that the judges of the busy District Court sometimes attempt to break the monotony of the daily docket with sarcastic or facetious remarks.

"When I first suggested that I could marry [the defendant and his fiancee] I perhaps was acting out of your characterization, 'breaking the monotony with sardonic humor,' " Judge Russell said. "I was astounded that the public defender said it was OK. No one objected when he volunteered that he was sending [the couple] to Towson for a marriage license. I assumed they would come back with the bad news that they had to wait 48 hours."

But, the defendant and his fiancee/alleged victim returned to the Essex courthouse with the license at lunch hour. Russell was surprised, and realized he was about to marry the defendant and the woman police said was his victim in chambers.

"I felt I owed it to them to at least talk to them," Judge Russell said. "I took them back in my chambers and questioned them thoroughly before deciding that they were indeed sincere, and why not legitimize their relationship and their children? It was perhaps my Catholic conscience."

Judge Russell said Tuesday the only evidence the state had against the defendant, 29-year-old Frederick D. Wood, was the testimony of the reluctant victim. "This was not a woman in any way in fear for her safety," he added. "In the courtroom, her body language said that she wasn't going to be a good witness. She wouldn't stand next to the state's attorney but rather clung to the defendant."

He found Mr. Wood not guilty.

The woman, who has two children with Mr. Wood, called police to their Middle River home on Nov. 29 and told them that he had hit her in the face, kicked her and banged her into the wall. The officer who responded to the scene wrote in his report that she had a bloody nose. But Judge Russell didn't know that at the time.

"I suppose the genesis of the chorus of concern is that I aided an abuser in his defense," Judge Russell wrote in his e-mail. "To remain unbiased, I never read the statement of probable cause, so I had no idea of the nature of the offense until I heard it on TV. And the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

"None of us likes domestic violence. I have never had a complaint in this regard in all my years on the bench. The head of Baltimore County's domestic violence unit and her staff are supportive and say that I have always been very accommodating to their office. No one from their office is complaining."

Judge Russell said the alleged victim later called him, after news reports of the case and controversy it stirred, and thanked him for expediting the marriage. But two advocates for women's legal rights, the House Of Ruth Maryland and the Women's Law Center of Maryland, have called Judge Russell's behavior "grossly inappropriate." The two groups filed a complaint with Maryland Judicial Disabilities Commission, the state panel that disciplines judges.

As for my Sunday speculations that Judge Russell has been in District Court too long, he said, "I am not bored, as you wrote. The dockets are not dreary. I could retire, but I feel I'm serving the public and doing good as well as justice.

"I thought I was doing well in this case and was not thwarting justice in any way. The end result would have been the same no matter what I did. But I, in retrospect, should have let someone else marry them. I know it's the appearance that matters. I've done a lot of good over the years, but I suppose it's what you've done lately. I made an error in judgment out of good intentions. Mea Culpa. Thanks for listening."