March 17, 2010 -- A Baltimore County judge has been reassigned after pausing the trial of an accused batterer to marry him to his alleged victim so she could avoid testifying against him.
Judge Darrell Russell Jr., the Baltimore County District Court judge assigned to the non-jury trial, performed the wedding ceremony in his chambers for defendant Frederick Wood and his girlfriend. Prosecutors say they were powerless to stop it.
"It's very frustrating. We view very seriously the crime of domestic violence," Deputy State's Attorney Leo Ryan said. "We understand that very often the nature of this crime means the victims are reluctant to testify."
As a parting comment, according to an audio recording of the proceedings, Russell left the new groom with these sentiments:
"Mr. Wood, I found you not guilty, so I can't sentence you as a defendant in any crimes ... but earlier today, I sentenced you to life married to her."
A spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary Office of Communications and Public Affairs confirmed today that Russell has been indefinitely reassigned and will no longer be allowed to preside over domestic violence cases.
"Effective today Judge Russell has been reassigned to chambers meaning he will not be hearing any cases at all, and the work that he'll be doing in chambers is reviewing motions and civil cases," Angelita Plemmer said.
The reassignment was ordered by District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn.
Both Wood, 29, and his girlfriend, a 27-year-old mother of two young sons whose name is being withheld, were in court last week for Wood's trial on a misdemeanor second-degree assault charge stemming from a Nov. 29 incident at their home.
According to police reports, the woman told police that Wood picked a fight with her at 4 a.m., smacking her in the face and kicking her in the side. As the alleged assault continued, she told police, Wood banged her head into the wall and dragged her though the house before she was able to flee.
Domestic Violence Bride Reported That New Husband Tried to Kill Her
The responding police officer "found several visible injuries to victim ... including a bloody nose and a swollen left side of her face near her eye." A long red mark was also photographed on the woman's neck.
The officer also compiled a report called a "domestic violence lethality screen" in which the woman said she thought he might try to kill her and that he has threatened to kill her and/or her children in the past.
She also answered "yes" on several more questions, including whether he has access to a gun, whether he's ever tried to strangle or choke her and whether he's ever spied on her or left threatening messages.
The guns, she later told authorities, were hunting rifles kept in a safe.
The screen also noted that Wood is unemployed, controlling and has tried to kill himself.
She was also recorded telling police, "He said he wants to kill me."
Neither Wood nor the woman could be reached for comment.
By the time the case made it to Russell's courtroom, however, the couple was outwardly ready to get hitched.
Ryan said the trial began with Assistant Public Defender Phillip Heller calling for a postponement "for the explicit purpose to allow the victim and defendant to marry so the victim could invoke her marital privilege."
Maryland law states that a spouse is not legally required to testify against the other spouse. District Public Defender Thelma Triplin declined to comment on Heller's actions and Heller could also not be reached at his home or by e-mail.
Russell referred all comments to Plemmer's office.
Ryan, who was not in court that day but has been brief by Assistant State's Attorney Christina Cuomo, said the defense lawyer at one point asked Cuomo to put the case in a "stet docket," which essentially renders a case inactive, but not decided.
Cuomo, he said, refused.
"She was adamant about prosecuting the case," he said.
After Heller made his request, the judge offered to solve the defense attorney's problem.
"He told the defense attorney that there was no need to postpone the case," Ryan said. "That they could go to Towson, get a marriage license and come back and he would marry them that day."
Judge Marries Alleged Victim, Puts Her on Stand Minutes Later
Wood and his betrothed were excused for the 25 minute drive to the Towson court to get a marriage license and were married back in Russell's chambers a short time later.
Once the trial reconvened, his new bride was immediately put on the witness stand.
"She invokes her marital privilege so there's no evidence in the case. And the judge finds him not guilty," Ryan said.
Whether anyone files a complaint against Russell remains to be seen. A spokesman for the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities said complaints against any judge are confidential until that judge is publicly charged.
There are no public actions on record for Russell.