WESTMINSTER -- A Carroll jury took less than an hour to deliver Charles Gerard Aiken III from the "hell year" he has been living since he was arrested and charged last May with threatening to kill Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr.
"I'm so relieved," the 47-year-old landscaper said between sighs and tears Friday afternoon after the jury found him not guilty of the misdemeanor charge.
"I'm so glad I was able to prove my innocence," he said. "This has been a hell year. It's been terrible, horrible and wrenching."
Aiken, of Union Mills, was charged with threatening a state official after calling his sister, Mary Aiken Frankos of Laurel, at 1 a.m. May 23 and telling her he was "going to off the judge," according to court charging documents.
Burns had presided over a two-year battle between Aiken and his ex-wife over visitation rights to the couple's two children. Aiken's ex-wife, Carolyn Mincher of Towson, had been granted custody. Burns had approved -- and Aiken had signed -- an order that prevents him from seeing his children until they are 18.
Neither Aiken nor the prosecution, under the direction of Assistant State's Attorney David M. Littrell, disagreed that Aiken was despondent for years over the visitation order.
But where Littrell insisted that Aiken had "been consumed with Judge Burns" for two days last May, the defense countered that all Aiken was doing was continuing his campaign to "get the judge off the bench" and force him to resign.
The key witness for the prosecution, Aiken's sister, testified for nearly an hour, recounting for the jury and Circuit Judge Francis M. Arnold the May 23 phone call.
She hadn't talked to her brother for four years before the phone call, she said.
"He was saying, 'I'm sick and tired of not having my kids, I am sick and tired, and I'm going to get that guy,' " she testified, glancing occasionally at a set of crumpled notes. "He said, 'I'm going to off the judge.' I was shocked, I was really scared."
At 1:13 a.m. the previous day, Aiken had called Burns at home, the judge testified.
"It was a very emotional case, all the way through," Burns said, referring to Aiken's displeasure with the outcome of the divorce and visitation disputes. Aiken never threatened the judge during that or any other conversation with the judge, Burns said.
Aiken -- the only defense witness -- testified that his sister misheard him that night. "I said that I wanted to get the judge off the bench," he testified. He recounted a years-long petition effort to force Burns to resign.
The jury's deliberations were made easier by the fact that the prosecution was unable to prove that Frankos' story was entirely believable or that Aiken ever meant to physically harm the judge, a juror said after the verdict.
"There wasn't enough proof that he meant any harm to him," said the juror, who asked that her name not be used. She said the jury reached its unanimous verdict on the first vote.
Littrell, whose cross-examination of Aiken was aggressive and at times caused the defendant to stammer and lose his composure, declined to comment on the case.