On the eve of her resignation, Wanda Keyes Heard, chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, speaks about her career.
The serial sex offender was unapologetic. He described the night of his crimes as a party, not an assault inside a vacant rowhouse. Chief Judge Wanda Keyes Heard just listened.
She had prosecuted sex crimes in the 1980s, putting away some of Baltimore’s most depraved men. Now, as judge, came one more case.
“You are a sexual predator,” she told him. “I must protect the community.”
It was one of her last tasks in a courtroom. She is retiring this week as the first woman to preside over Baltimore Circuit Court, but this case brought another first.
In 20 years on the bench, she had never been hit.
The defendant reached for a water pitcher. A heavy, metal pitcher.
Two weeks later, Heard departs with the memory of her welt and a photo of the swelling, but she’s not shaken. She’s proud and grateful for a trailblazing career.
She came to preside over some of Baltimore’s most famous cases, including the murder trial of “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed. As chief judge, she broke new ground for what a woman can accomplish in the law.
“I’m blessed,” she says. "Thurgood Marshall walked these halls. I’m sitting on the bench and right down there on Pratt Street they used to march slaves.”
Former mayor and University of Baltimore President Kurt Schmoke called her an inspiration. Defense attorney Ivan Bates called her a "rock star” of the judiciary.
“There are judges that care for the community, but Judge Heard was deeper,” Bates says. “She brought the community into the court, and that’s rare.”
Heard traces her career back to a girlhood in Freeport, Long Island, when her parents challenged the segregated schools. In the mid-1960s, she was in third grade and falling behind white children. Her father, a schoolteacher, noticed their new books and nicer classrooms. He sued and the NAACP took the case, awakening her to the law.
His daughter graduated from UMBC in 1979 and from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1982. After two years as an assistant state’s attorney, she found herself interviewing with the old firm Horn, Dressel & Bennett.
The firm had never before hired an African American or a woman, she says.
“My experience was multicultural; I was a New Yorker. Joining an all-white, male firm didn’t really faze me."
In the mid-1980s, she defended companies like Giant Food and Mano Swartz Furs. Judges and attorneys were not expecting an African American woman.
“When the judge looked out to see who showed up in the motions hearings, they would say, ‘Well, Giant Food’s not here.’ And I’d raise my hand and say, ‘No, here I am.’”
Then came stints in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and the federal public defender’s. In September 1988, she was recruited to run a division of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
“I told them, ‘Give me the unit that’s in the worst condition,’” she says.
She took over the special victims unit, prosecuting pedophiles and rapists. She recalls the words one teenage girl scrawled on a test at school — a cry for help.
I hate life. I hate school. I hate people. I hope to die.
The teen and her stepsisters had been raped by their father. Their own mother had brought the girls to his bed. Heard indicted both parents.
She sought 10 consecutive life sentences for the father; he accepted a plea deal to three of them. Heard convicted the mother, too; she got 15 years, news reports from the time confirm.
“Our unit did not play around,” Heard says. “The deal does not get sweeter the closer you get to trial — the deal gets worse. … If we indicted you for this type of behavior, we know we got you.”
She indicted Walter Criddle, an influential director of group homes in Baltimore, on charges of raping and sexually abusing children. Heard says Criddle arranged to have a key witness removed from juvenile detention and whisked to West Virginia. The girl made her way to a pay phone and called for help, just in time for his bail hearing.
“He walked in all these affluent people to sit on the front row and vouch for his credibility, but he didn’t know that we had found the girl,” Heard says. “I stood up and said, ‘Your honor, no bail!’”
Her success drew attention. She was recruited to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Virgin Islands. Divorced and with a 4-year-old daughter, she arrived in St. Croix in January 1991.
There, she helped draft the first child abuse laws of the Virgin Islands and went after drug smugglers.
Heard went on to work for U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in Washington, then prosecuted federal drug cases in Florida.
In January 1999, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening appointed her to the bench. When sworn in, she recited Psalm 40.
I waited patiently for the Lord. He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire. He set my feet on a rock, and gave me a firm place to stand.
She came to relish presiding over trials.
“I was about good lawyering,” she says. “It’s unacceptable to come to my courtroom unprepared. It’s unacceptable not to know the law. You don’t know the law? Let’s go get the book. Open it up.”
It wasn’t enough to cite case law. She wanted to know who wrote the opinion. A legal opinion can vary in quality, she says, like dinner. She wanted opinions from the legal equivalent of The Prime Rib, not McDonald’s.
She presided over the murder trial of a 19-year-old honors student at Woodlawn High School, a young man who would become famous in the hit podcast “Serial.”
The chief judge would sometimes hand down a sentence that included required reading, say of the race memoir “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.”
“You would have to read it and give a book report,” says Bates, the defense attorney.
Heard taught civics classes at night to ex-cons in the Lazarus Rite program, even occasionally to a man she sent to prison, says Christopher Ervin, who runs the nonprofit. He says her reputation will only grow.
“Baltimore will not understand who Wanda Heard was to Baltimore until we’re 30 years past her last day,” Ervin says.
Heard opened her courtroom to schoolchildren for mock trials. They tried Goldilocks for breaking and entering the home of the three bears. Children played prosecutor and defense. They gave opening statements in the trial of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“Education is the way you open the door to a dream in the mind of a child," Heard says.
But at 62 years old — eight shy of a mandatory retirement age — Heard says she’s ready to step down and free herself from the restrictions on judges, such as prohibitions on endorsing candidates or joining social causes.
“I’ve had a blessed career. I have no regrets," she says. “I don’t fry chicken real good … my cakes have a sag in the middle, but I can try a case.”
The case of sex offender Travis Burroughs was among the last on her docket.
Burroughs told her he didn’t think he had committed a crime. He asked for leniency.
The judge noted his DNA matched six unsolved cases of alleged rape. He had preyed on vulnerable women, she said, such as young girls, prostitutes and the homeless.
“You decide you’re going to use your power, and the tool of sex, to impose your will on them. That’s not a ‘yes.’ That’s not a voluntary act. That’s sexual assault, and that’s a crime.”
Notable cases: Her parents sued the officials of Freeport, Long Island, in the 1960s to desegregate the schools. She prosecuted influential group home director Walter Criddle for sex crimes in 1990. As a judge, she presided over the murder trial of “Serial” podcast subject Adnan Syed.