The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Judging Lopez

A high-profile female judge + a transgendered perp + a victim whose story can't be checked out = a memorably gruesome media orgy

by Dan Kennedy

First things first: personally, I think Judge Maria Lopez should have handed a considerably tougher sentence to Charles "Ebony" Horton. Any sexual encounter with a minor should be punished more severely than the one year of house arrest followed by four years of probation that Horton received.

And while I'm clearing the decks, I'll point out here that Lopez, as you may have heard, is the wife of Stephen Mindich, the owner and publisher of this newspaper.

With that out of the way, let's get down to business. What we have here is a judge who delivered a sentence that was well within her discretion, and who momentarily lost her temper with a lawyer -- not exactly an uncommon occurrence in the halls of justice, although perhaps shocking to viewers who are rarely exposed to the inner workings of the legal system. (Although anyone who watches Judge Judy knows things can get feisty.) Lopez's actions were controversial but hardly catastrophic. Yet the political establishment -- driven, in this case, by a reflexive, unskeptical, and often venal media -- has responded as though this were the worst miscarriage of justice since O.J. Simpson's acquittal.

The annals of judicial controversy are rich. The Lopez story wasn't even the only example that took place last week. There was, if you recall, Judge Kenneth Nasif, who went along with the Bristol County district attorney's request to imprison a pregnant mother out of fear that she might harm her unborn child, even though she has never been charged with a crime. Following a closed hearing, prosecutor Gerald FitzGerald reportedly said that Nasif had gone so far as to say he had heard Rebecca Corneau's fetus speak to him -- although let's give the judge the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant it in the metaphorical sense.

Then there was Judge Margory German, who, last June, sentenced 17-year-old Christopher Carlton to no more than two years in a juvenile facility for slashing his ex-girlfriend's throat, leaving a six-inch scar.

In 1997, Judge Hiller Zobel threw out a jury's second-degree-murder conviction in the case of British au pair Louise Woodward, accused of killing a baby in her care.

In the last two of those instances there was, briefly, a firestorm of protest (and, in the contentious Woodward matter, plenty of support for the judge, too). Whatever you think about the merits of those decisions, they showed that there is plenty of ideological and intellectual diversity on the Massachusetts bench. But only Lopez has been threatened with the loss of her judicial robes.

So what's different about the Horton affair? Lots of things: a transgendered defendant, with all the stereotypes that conjures up; a woman judge who lost her temper for a moment while the TV cameras were rolling; and a victim whose juvenile status invokes privacy protections that have made it extremely difficult for the case to get the full airing it deserves. Put these together and bring them to a boil in what would otherwise have been a slow news week, and you've got all the ingredients needed for a gruesome media orgy: day after day of front-page headlines, mean-spirited outbursts from the likes of Herald columnist Howie Carr, instant polls, and radio talk-show hosts camped out in front of Lopez's house.

* The female factor. It's too simplistic to suggest that Judge Lopez has been singled out for abuse because she's a woman, but it's naive to think that this plays no role at all. The Globe, in particular, seems transfixed by Lopez's gender, running old file photos of her on rollberblades (the Herald's Lopez pictures, by contrast, have been all business, although that is no doubt a reflection of what's in its library more than anything else) and publishing a Brian McGrory column last Friday in which he wrote that she has a "smile capable of making a pacemaker explode." What precisely this has to do with Lopez's handling of the Horton case is unclear, although it does manage to communicate, subliminally at least, that Lopez is not a serious person -- or, to be more specific, not quite as serious as, say, a male judge.

It's in that context that the oft-repeated videotape of Lopez ordering prosecutor David Deakin to shut up and sit down must be seen. I've watched not just the excerpt but the entire eight-and-a-half-minute tape of the sentencing hearing shot for the media pool by WLVI-TV (Channel 56). And though Lopez's outburst at Deakin appears to be unprovoked, neither is it any big deal, as any reporter who has drawn courthouse duty and watched snappish judges would know. Moreover, just a few minutes after Lopez's flash of temper, Deakin is seen expressing his concerns about the details of the sentence, and Lopez incorporates some of those concerns -- such as Deakin's suggestion that the language specifically prohibit Horton from coming anywhere near the 12-year-old victim -- into it.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

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