Judge's mercy is tempered by a fateful irony


When Demetrius Kastanaras stood before Judge Martin Greenfeld that morning in Baltimore Circuit Court, he begged not to be sent to prison.

"I'm dying," Kastanaras declared. "I could go any time."

Judge Greenfeld, a sensitive man, agonized openly over the decision. Kastanaras had cancer. Also, though, he was a professional cocaine dealer and a full-time liar.

Initially arrested on drug charges in Baltimore County, he'd pleaded for mercy and promised to go straight. He got 18 months' probation. Filled with gratitude, he went right back to drug dealing and was busted on new charges two months later, this time in the city.

And so, on Aug. 6, 1985 -- precisely seven years ago -- he copped a drug plea before Judge Greenfeld. But a funny thing happened the following month when sentencing day arrived: Kastanaras didn't.

Released from jail on his own recognizance, he'd gone to Greece for a vacation and sent his attorney a postcard: Having a swell time, wish you were here, and by the way could you get me a postponement on that sentencing business?

In Circuit Court, assistant state's attorney John Prevas hit the roof when he heard the news.

"The defendant has decided on his own to put his travel plans ahead of his respect for the court," Prevas cried. "It's not up to the defendant to set his own sentencing schedule at his convenience."

When the 31-year-old Kastanaras finally showed up for sentencing, nearly a month late, he begged for mercy. He was dying, he said, and only wanted to spend his remaining little time caring for his young son.

Judge Greenfeld held his head in his hands and did not know what to do.

"What we have is a man who has demonstrated his unreliability, who gets one break through probation and then comes back and asks for mercy," the judge said. "A man who continues his criminal activity and then tries to cop out by saying, 'What about my family?'

"On the other hand, we have a gentleman who might not live five more years, who has other medical problems and for whom a long incarceration could jeopardize his health."

Law enforcement people didn't make Greenfeld's job any easier.

"A significant drug dealer," said Sgt. Will Pennington, the city cop who'd worked the case. "This is a guy who sold a lot of drugs. He's not run of the mill."

"Dealing drugs was a cold economic decision," added prosecutor Prevas. "No matter how wrenching our emotions, we have to remember that. He can handle jail. The cancer's all gone. He could get it again, but we don't know. If it comes back, the sentence could always be cut. But we're talking about a high-level retailer here."

In one quiet moment in court, the diminutive Kastanaras glanced at Sergeant Pennington and whispered, "You ain't gonna get me."

He was right. After lengthy public anguish, Judge Greenfeld sentenced Kastanaras to three years behind bars -- but suspended 2 1/2 years. He was on work release within days and was released completely after a few months.

For Prevas, a nerve had been hit. Standing outside the courtroom later, the prosecutor said, "Just because people have medical problems, it doesn't mean they shouldn't go to jail. People contrive problems. Look at Meyer Lansky," the legendary organized crime figure. "Every time they went to try him, he'd be on medical tubes."

Now a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, Prevas had a history of prosecuting such cases. As an assistant state's attorney, he sent several pregnant women to jail, even as they showed up with swollen bellies for sympathetic judges to observe.

"Dope dealers," Prevas shrugged. "They get busted, and then, when they're waiting for their trial date or their sentencing, they get very casual about birth control."

Demetrius Kastanaras wasn't casual about his health, just the facts about it. He had cancer, but tried to make his own death seem imminent. The cancer was life-threatening, but so was Kastanaras' cocaine dealing. He knew the penalties for drug distribution, but tried to finesse his way around them with his health.

In fact, he did a pretty good job -- getting virtually no prison time, despite conviction for significant involvement in cocaine traffic.

"Oh, my God, how that case troubled Judge Greenfeld," Sgt. Will Pennington, now an investigator with the State Prosecutor's Office, remembered yesterday.

"Yeah," said attorney P. Paul Cocoros, who defended Kastanaras, "I sure thought the guy was about to die. And I remember how upset Judge Greenfeld was over the sentencing."

"It was a tremendous ordeal for Greenfeld," added Judge Prevas. "He thought Kastanaras was going to die any moment, and that's why he gave him such a break."

Now comes the latest news about Kastanaras. He died last week, of cancer -- precisely seven years after claiming death was imminent.

The irony is this: Kastanaras outlived Greenfeld by four full years. The judge died in August 1988.

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