A Young Lawyer Girds for the Courtroom


Twenty years ago this summer, I took the elevator to the fourth floor of the old post office and federal courthouse building on Calvert Street and proudly reported to work on my first day as an assistant U. S. attorney for the District of Maryland.

I tried hard to look like a professional that morning. I'd gotten a haircut. I wore the dark blue, pin-striped suit my wife had helped me pick out several weeks earlier. I'd bought a copy of the Wall Street Journal, tucked it smartly under my arm and hoped the other people in the elevator noticed it.

Of course, those props didn't work. I didn't look like a prosecutor, and I knew it. I remember feeling particularly betrayed by my attache case. The shiny, brand-new leather told the world that I was only a recent law school graduate with no practical legal experience. I felt young, green, nervous, excited and scared.

My new boss, George Beall, told me he had decided to start me off as the junior prosecutor in a zoning bribery case which would go to trial that October before Judge Alexander Harvey II. The two defendants were the chairman of the Prince George's County commissioners and the real-estate developer accused of bribing him.

George sent me down the hall to report to the senior prosecutor on the case. I found him sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk. I went in and introduced myself. That's how I first started to work with Barney Skolnik.

I'd heard of him. He had helped to convict a Maryland congressman on corruption charges in 1968. Over the next three years he had tried a wide variety of other cases, including the Catonsville Nine. By 1971, he had become the best trial lawyer in the office.

In those days, Barney looked the way I thought a federal prosecutor should look -- tough, shrewd, hard-nosed. His five o'clock shadow would appear by 11 a.m. He held his cigarette like it was a weapon. His fierce eyes burned, especially when he bored in on dishonest or evasive witnesses. As they gave their shifty answers, he would mockingly flip his black eyebrows up and down to emphasize his contempt. He sliced up their testimony in his clipped New York accent, which I tried hard to imitate for a while in the hope that I would sound as tough as he did.

We immediately began to work on the bribery case together. Even though I was only a rookie, Barney assigned me an important role in the trial. He wanted me to put on the evidence that the developer had bought a green John Deere tractor for the public official to use on his farm. Barney would then take over and prove the difficult part of the case -- that the tractor was not an innocent gift but a corrupt bribe.

I had a rocky time in the courtroom. It was my first trial. I didn't know how to question witnesses without improperly "leading" them -- phrasing my questions in ways which suggested the answers I wanted. Asking proper questions is like learning to ride a bike. Once you get the hang of it, you never forget. But I hadn't learned the trick yet. Defense counsel objected repeatedly. Judge Harvey soon lost patience with me. Very soon.

"Mr. Baker," he growled at me. "You start every one of your questions with 'when,' 'what', 'why' or 'how.' Do you understand that?!"

Barney was wonderful. He whispered advice in his uncertain assistant's ear. He suggested questions. When I flubbed up again, he protected me from the judge. I started to feel better. Then an executive in the developer's company testified in a way that flatly contradicted what he had consistently told me in pretrial interviews. I was young and innocent. I was outraged. I think Judge Harvey felt the same way. He allowed me to cross-examine my own witness while Barney coached me.

After our evidence, the defense began its case. To our complete surprise, they put on witnesses who claimed the green tractor had really been used on the developer's construction sites, not the public official's farm. I panicked. Barney struck back in fury.

I saw then what a serious mistake a defense lawyer could make by surprising Barney at trial. In a crisis he shifted from intellect to gut instinct, the most dangerous weapon in his arsenal. He never doubted that the defendants had fabricated their defense. Rage fueled his counterattack. You couldn't tell what he'd do next. I don't think he himself even knew before he launched into his cross-examinations.

But he demolished the defense. I remember one witness so shaken at the end of Barney's cross that the man adamantly insisted that the tractor he had seen on a construction site had been yellow.

After those zoning bribery cases, our investigation shifted to political corruption in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. I worked with Barney through the Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson prosecutions in 1973 and 1974. Then I left the office.

Barney continued the work with the other young prosecutors who had joined the team. He was still at it when I returned as U.S. attorney in 1978. Two years later, he left and went into private practice with a large Baltimore firm.

Last week, Barney moved to Maine to hang out his shingle as a small-town lawyer.

When Barney Skolnik first came to Maryland in 1968, systematic political corruption had befouled our state for a long time. Whatever our problems today, at least our public officials deal with them without the influence of $100 bills stuffed in envelopes. From the early 1960s through the early 1980s, a generation of federal prosecutors and dedicated I.R.S. agents cleaned house.

Barney was the best of us. From a distance some people saw him only as a remorseless Nemesis -- the avenging sword of justice.

I went into battle with him, but I was also privileged to see his softer side.

In ancient cultures a boy had to undergo some formalized test which symbolized his passage to manhood. The older males in the tribe walked him through the ordeal. Those rituals fulfilled critical psychic functions. They initiated the boy into the brotherhood of men and prepared him to assume his manly responsibilities in life.

Such rituals have largely disappeared in our modern society. Some of us, however, stumble into situations and relationships which serve the same purpose. I was one of those lucky ones.

In the summer of 1971, I got off the elevator, walked down the hall and started the passage into manhood at the side of a mighty warrior who had a funny laugh, a gentle hand and a warm heart.

Tim Baker writes on regional affairs.

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