Semantics overrun court case in progress


For an occasional dollar, Ronnie Smuck has played booking agent for dancers on The Block. From force of habit, he sometimes calls them girls. For this, he now pays a legal price which defies reason.

Go back to last December. A woman who works on The Block asks Smuck for a loan to help pay her rent and buy Christmas gifts. Smuck helps out, but says he needs the money back after the holidays.

On Jan. 9, he goes to The Stage Door, just off The Block, to ask about repayment. But he gets into an argument with the bar manager, Tony Pulaski, and the two decide, in the time-honored and primitive way, to settle the argument outside, with fists.

Only, according to court testimony, Pulaski pulls a gun, points it at Smuck and says, "I'm gonna blow your head off."

Smuck backs up, hoping to reach the lights of East Baltimore Street, where security officers patrol The Block. Pulaski, according to Smuck, never puts his gun down, never stops talking of firing it.

After several minutes, Smuck reaches Baltimore Street, Pulaski backs off, the two men exit in separate directions. But Smuck, furious, decides to press charges for assault with a deadly weapon.

And here, in our sensitive time, is where we run into problems with the English language vs. the process of law. It is April 27, in Central District Court, before Judge Askew Gatewood. Smuck brings seven witnesses to court and takes the stand.

"It was," he testifies, "a domestic matter with one of the girls here. . ."

"Not girls," declares Judge Gatewood. "Women, ladies."

Smuck, immediately compliant, corrects himself: "The lady owed me money, and. . ."

He testifies for a minute or so more, then lapses back into "girl," and Gatewood stops him again.

"I'm not going to let anybody call you a boy," the judge says, leaving clear the implicit insulting use of girl. "We have to work our way through this."

"Yes," Smuck agrees. "Anyway, since the altercation, she has paid me $200 back."

Listening to a court-recorded tape of the case, there seems no tension between the judge and Smuck. Voices are calm, even chummy. At one point, Gatewood tells Assistant State's Attorney Michael Braverman, "You know where [The Stage Door] is, Mr. Braverman."

"I'm sorry," Braverman says. "I haven't been there."

Gatewood chuckles. Smuck continues his account: "He was saying about blowing my head off. He was yelling and screaming."

"You've been to The Stage Door before?" Smuck is asked now. He has been testifying about 10 minutes.

"Several times," he says.

"To see [Pulaski?]"

"To resolve the debt, because the girl. . ."

"Ah-ah," says Judge Gatewood.

"The lady," says Smuck, "offered to take out so much money. . ."

Now he is asked again, "Were you ever in Pulaski's place before coming in to collect this money?"

"I'd lent another girl money, yes, sir," says Smuck.

And now comes the voice of Judge Gatewood:

"I've told you, sir, I'm tired of that girl word, and since you can't straighten this matter up, I'm dismissing this case."

For an instant, there is silence: Someone has been charged with threatening to shoot a man to death, and the charge is being dismissed over sexist language?

"Thank you very much, folks," says Gatewood.

"Because I said the word 'girls,"' says Smuck, "this case is dismissed?"

"Case dismissed," Gatewood repeats. "You may step down, Mr. Smuck."

Yesterday, Judge Gatewood declared in a telephone interview:

"I dismissed the case. That's all. I dismissed the case. If you've heard the tape, then you've heard everything I have to say about it."

We live in changing times. Everyone wishes to be aware of the various -isms of our era, including sexism. The controversial rape trial in Baltimore County, presided over by Judge Tom Bollinger, and the Anne Arundel teacher having sex with underage students, raise everyone's sensitivities. Smuck, working as a booking agent for dancers on The Block, offends some.

But, in a desire for sexual sensitivity, a line was crossed here, wherein language became more important than law, or common sense.

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