In the light of judicial scrutiny, a dark memory

The tree still lives at the corner of Wolfe and Monument streets, in the midst of the sprawling Johns Hopkins Hospital complex of East Baltimore. The tree lives in memory of Alan Trimakas, a medical student who never got to be the doctor he wanted to be and that the world surely needed.

Classmates of Trimakas planted the tree a few months after his senseless, infuriating death. A senior in the Hopkins medical school, Trimakas specialized in internal medicine and cardiology; he wanted to be a cardiologist. He had been Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia, the salutatorian of his class. Hopkins ranked Trimakas in the top quarter of the class of 1979. He was just a few months from graduating when he was killed.

The other day, I remembered his boyish, handsome face when it appeared with an old news story from The Baltimore Sun; the story reported Trimakas' death in a mugging on a winter night.

I have a distinct, personal memory of this episode from Baltimore's epoch of violence — Trimakas' white medical coat draped over a wooden chair at the prosecutor's table in Baltimore Circuit Court. That was during the trial of Trimakas' accused killer, a teenager named James Featherstone. Trimakas' nameplate was still on the coat; he had worn it the night he was shot.

It was about 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, 1979. Trimakas was 25 years old. He came out of a building at Hopkins and walked toward his car on East Monument Street. He never got to it, interrupted on the way by three teenage boys who apparently demanded money. Trimakas started running. One of the boys had a handgun. He shot Trimakas.

Shot him in the back as he fled.

As he fled.

Trimakas died in the Hopkins emergency room, an incomprehensible waste of a promising life, among the thousands of gun homicides that have occurred in Baltimore since the 1970s.

I raise up this dark memory only because Featherstone, the teenager who was convicted of killing Trimakas, is an "Unger case." That means, 35 years into his life sentence, Featherstone, now 51, could be granted a new trial or released from prison under a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last year.

In Unger v. State, Maryland's high court found that before 1980 jurors were incorrectly instructed that they, not the trial judge, were the judges of the law and of the facts. They were told that what the judge had to say about the law was advisory — essentially, that reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence were just suggestions. The instructions were fixed in 1980. Last year's ruling opened the way for affected inmates to ask for new trials.

Featherstone is among a couple of hundred Maryland inmates who fall under Unger. A hearing on his case is expected in Baltimore Circuit Court this month.

In a column published during Featherstone's trial in November 1979, I noted the presence in the courtroom of Trimakas' mother, Vaida Trimakas of Westlake, Ohio, and Carol Healy, a nurse, graduate student at the University of Maryland and Alan Trimakas' fiancee. In the years since Trimakas' death, Carol Healy became Carol Classen and moved to Texas.

She has remained in touch with Trimakas' mother and both have been apprised of Featherstone's forthcoming hearing by the Baltimore state's attorney.

Vaida Trimakas said Friday she was "very upset" at the prospect of Featherstone's release.

But in a phone call and subsequent emails, Classen said she was appalled — not that Featherstone might be released, but that he's still in prison. She cites two reasons — Featherstone's young age at the time of the crime, and her belief that another teenager actually pulled the trigger on the gun that was used in the killing but never recovered.

Prosecutors had difficulty getting definitive and consistent testimony from two teenage witnesses during the trial, according to Sun reports. Classen has a distinct memory of that.

"I worked as a stress management therapist and biofeedback specialist," she said. "I counseled with families of murder and suicide victims, and counseled people suffering from panic attacks. … But never in my life did I see two young boys so frightened as they changed their story."

Though prosecutors secured a conviction of Featherstone, they later were forced to drop charges against a co-defendant when the two witnesses refused outright to testify.

On the day of his sentencing, Featherstone said: "I have done wrong before in my days, but I never killed anybody. I'm innocent, your honor." Judge Martin B. Greenfeld sentenced him to life in prison. Featherstone was 17 at the time.

The Unger ruling was hugely important for the legal flaw it revealed after being so long ignored. But, of course, every old case brought into the light of judicial scrutiny takes us back into the darkness of memory. Most of these cases are acutely personal and painful to the surviving relatives and friends. But some, like the Trimakas case, resonate beyond that circle to the all-of-us who remember — to the sad, angry and uncomprehending all-of-us.

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