Even for a judge, cost of following conscience is controversy


A few weeks ago, considerable grumbling rolled down the corridors of the Baltimore County courthouse. Several prosecutors were outraged that a judge had stuck his neck out for a defendant in a drug case. That's how the thing was presented to me, anyway. But that's not a fair characterization of what District Judge Lawrence Daniels did. Actually, he did what a subpoena required -- and what other judges have done for white-collar crooks. It was principled and, since Daniels is being considered for promotion to the Circuit Court and cannot afford enemies, what he did took guts.

Last month, sentencing was coming up for a guy named Robert Babcock, an auto repair shop owner who in 1992 had been caught in the net of a county drug investigation. Babcock was alleged to have been the middleman for the sale of a kilo of cocaine from one man to another, though the drug deal was never transacted.

"In my experience," says Frank Meyer, chief of the narcotics prosecution section of the state's attorney's office, "someone who has access to that amount of cocaine is not a first-time dealer. You don't start with a kilo of cocaine."

Babcock, who had no prior drug convictions, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute. According to his attorney, Phil Kelly, the state intended to recommend a sentence of eight years in prison, four of them suspended. "But the guidelines for such a situation called for a sentence of from six months to three years," says Kelly. "So naturally, I had to offer all I could in the way of mitigation."

Kelly called upon Judge Daniels, who had known Babcock for several years and who, as a private attorney, had represented the mechanic in a civil matter, to testify as a character witness. "I told him I was reluctant to call him," Kelly says. "Of course, I wanted to know if he would have anything good to say about Bob. He told me, 'If you issue me a subpoena, I will testify honestly.' "

That's what Daniels did. Though he said Babcock deserved a break, Daniels' testimony was hardly a call for canonization.

"I knew him when he worked as a mechanic at a corner gas station on York Road," Daniels tells me. "He dreamed of having his own shop. When he did work on my car, he was always honest; he did good work at a reasonable price. The guy has many gifts. But I knew when I first met him that he probably abused alcohol. I told him several times, 'If you want to run a business you've got to grow up.' I told him, 'You can't be a loudmouth Bowleys Quarters wild man on the weekend and a businessman during the week.' "

"At one point," says Kelly, "the state's attorney asked [Daniels] if he thought someone who arranged the sale of a kilo of cocaine should go to jail, and he said yes. You have to look at the totality of what he said. Any prosecutor who heard what Judge Daniels said would know he didn't say [Babcock] was the greatest guy around. The judge was extremely candid. Frankly, I was starting to wonder whether I'd done the right thing bringing him in."

Judge Alfred L. Brennan gave Babcock five years in prison, suspended four and ordered him to home detention for one year. He ordered Babcock to pay the cost of home detention -- about $700 a month, according to Kelly -- and $1,500 in fines. That sentence did not please prosecutors, who immediately started grousing in the corridors about Judge Daniels' testimony.

Sounds like sour grapes to me. A judge is not an employee of the state's attorney's office. And a judge is a private citizen. In this case, it seems to me, there were two things that forced Judge Daniels to testify -- a subpoena and a conscience.

Signs of the times

Sign outside a second-hand toy shop in Cambridge: "If it's old and stinky, we got it."

L Vanity plate spotted in Westminster (female driver): DNGBAT.

Vanity plate spotted in South Baltimore (female driver): LUV DAD.

The city firehouse on North Avenue has a Fire Prevention sign that's visible from the JFX. The sign is about fire evacuation strategies, but mostly what you see from the highway is the command: GET OUT STAY OUT. What a greeting to tourists!

Growling at Goucher

The November issue of Sassy, one of the most influential magazines for teen-age girls in the country, says Goucher is one of the "unsassiest" colleges in the country. Ouch! The magazine offers, among other evidence, last year's "Ms. Goucher" pageant, which featured a crass and sexist "talent" segment that outraged female students. Goucher went co-ed in 1987. "No sooner had the urinals been installed in the 'janes,' " Sassy says, "than a Ms. Goucher pageant was established. But this time, instead of women parading around as the object of men's desire, a few students figured it would be better for men to don 'traditional' female get-ups like wigs, bras and garter belts and strut their asinine selves across stage. . . . This kind of overt sexism was never an issue at Goucher when it was a single-sex school. Ain't it a shame how fast things have deteriorated?"

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