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Judge's queries tipped trial, appeals court rules

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore man's armed robbery convictions were overturned this week after the state's second-highest court said the judge tipped the trial in the prosecution's favor by asking too many questions of witnesses - more than 125 of them.

"The trial judge, in our view, overly injected himself as an inquisitor through the testimony of the witnesses, the result of which was to unduly give the perception that he favored the State's version of the factual presentation," the Court of Special Appeals wrote Monday regarding Antwan Derrell Smith's convictions. The opinion was first reported in the Maryland Daily Record.

At issue was the timeline of events on the night of Oct. 23, 2005, when three people were robbed by three men in the Brooklyn neighborhood of South Baltimore. The timelines presented by the robbery victims and two police officers didn't match.

Defense attorney Mark Van Bavel repeatedly objected to questioning by Circuit Judge John N. Prevas, who replied that he didn't believe his efforts aided the prosecution and were aimed merely at pre-empting later questions from the jury.

Veteran defense attorney Michael Kaminkow said judges may ask questions of witnesses, but "if the witnesses screw up, they screw up. It's not for the judge to clean up."

The court concluded that although Prevas' motives may have been pure, his "zeal to fit the pieces of the picture presented to the jury together like the pieces of jigsaw puzzle deprived [the] appellant of the right to a fair and impartial trial."

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