Conscientious, independent and fair-minded judges are accustomed to public attacks when making unpopular decisions. The public at large often misunderstands the finer points of law and fact when it comes to judicial decision-making. However, lawyers should know better.
From the public at large, the recent tirades against Baltimore City Judge Michael Studdard for releasing an accused murderer on $100,000 bail and home detention come as no surprise. But Thiru Vignarajah’s scathing and uninformed op-ed article, coming from a lawyer, is unforgivable. Mr. Vignarajah should not have called the judge’s decision “outrageous” or “a dangerous error,” and he should not have called Judge Studdard a “pliable district court judge.”
As a lawyer, Mr. Vignarajah knows that judicial ethics prevent Judge Studdard from responding to these unfair criticisms and unfounded comments that disparage the integrity of the Maryland judiciary.
As a former prosecutor, Mr. Vignarajah also should know better than to presume the guilt of Phillip West, who is charged with murder in a deadly shooting at a Fells Point bar in December. The presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle that judges are bound to honor. Moreover, it appears that Mr. Vignarajah rushed to judgment without actually attending the disputed hearing or referring to the transcript of the proceedings. On the other hand, I have read the full transcript of the bail review hearing, which occurred on Jan. 15th.
From the transcript, one gleans that Judge Studdard, a career prosecutor for two decades, listened carefully to all of the arguments from the prosecutor, pretrial services and defense counsel for and against releasing the 48-year old man on bail. Everyone recognized that Mr. West had voluntarily surrendered to authorities after learning of his arrest warrant and retaining counsel, that his criminal record included no Maryland convictions, no crimes of violence and showed he had appeared in court on his single set of federal drug convictions 15 years ago. The Baltimore prosecutor emphasized the seriousness of the murder charge and the potential danger, and the judge weighed that information with everything he learned about Mr. West during the hearing.
The defense attorney, whom Mr. Vignarajah described with a backhanded compliment as “one of Maryland’s most expensive” and “the kind of lawyer whose rates you pay to persuade a pliable district court judge to bend norms and do the unthinkable,” was prepared and did a workmanlike job. First, the lawyer suggested that a witness’ photo identification (as history has shown) may have been faulty. Then he presented pay stubs showing Mr. West as a full-time employee holding two jobs, introduced family members who were there in court and presented eight separate properties that family members were prepared to post as security for ensuring his reappearance. Most importantly, and in response to the first degree murder charge, he told of two other clients charged with the same crime, whom two judges in Harford and Baltimore counties had released with GPS monitoring and had complied fully with the conditions of release. One of those clients was later found not guilty, and the second pled to a reduced manslaughter charge and received probation, underscoring the need for the presumption of innocence mandate.
Rather than witnessing a judge’s “casual treatment,” as suggested by Mr. Vignarajah, in reaching a crucial decision, the transcript revealed Judge Studdard taking extraordinary time and deliberation when considering the evidence. He paused for minutes on two occasions during the bail hearing to deliberate before reaching his decision. Ordering $100,000 bail, the judge added a condition that required the defendant to stay at home 24/7, other than a visit to the GPS monitoring company charged with informing the judge should the defendant ever leave home or receive any visitors, besides his mother and lawyer.
Given this record, it is clear that Judge Studdard’s decision was well-reasoned, supported by evidence and consistent with the presumption of innocence. It’s become popular sport these days to bash judges, from the president, the governor and to the law-and-order crowd. More than ever, community interested in fair trials and justice must support a judge who follows the ethics rule of “not being swayed by public clamor or fear of criticism” and upholds the values of an impartial justice system. Real criminal justice reform requires judges to act bravely and not to succumb to the mob mentality.
Doug Colbert is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis Carey King School of law. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.