The Freddie Gray saga moved from the streets to the courtroom last week, turning a world-sized spotlight on Associate Judge Barry Williams, the Baltimore City Circuit Court jurist who is overseeing the criminal cases of the police officers charged in Gray’s death. But the 53-year-old is unlikely to wilt under the public scrutiny, observers say.
“That’s not a problem for him. He won’t be worried about public pressure and all of that. He’s just going to do his job,” said Ronald Richardson, a civil attorney with the Law Offices of Peter Angelos who knows Williams from the courtroom and their shared membership in at least one professional organization.
In fact, several professionals in Maryland’s legal community said Judge Williams may have been just the person needed to oversee a case of such complexity and gravity.
“No question he’s a good fit,” said veteran criminal attorney A. Dwight Pettit. “He has a fundamental academic understanding of not only the procedural issues but also the substantive issues in this case.”
Williams was born April 4, 1962, in Neptune, N.J. In 1984, he graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in history. Three years later, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law. After graduation, Williams served as a law clerk to then-Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Arrie W. Davis then Judge Robert M. Bell, then of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
For eight years, 1989 to 1997, Williams did a stint as a Baltimore City prosecutor before going federal, serving as a trial attorney and special litigation counsel in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice until 2005. From December of that year to the present, Judge Williams has served in Maryland’s 8th Judicial Circuit Court.
And, in all those positions, Williams has served with distinction, legal experts said.
“When he was a prosecutor he was known to be thorough and ethical. There was very little controversy over how he did his job,” said Jose Anderson, professor, University of Baltimore School of Law. “And, as a judge, his reputation is that he is very careful about how he rules on issues…[and] of being very balanced.”
In December 2011, Judge Williams was appointed as the judge-in-charge of the Baltimore Circuit Court’s Criminal Division, a position he held until January of this year. In that position, Williams was responsible for assigning judges, managing the criminal docket and serving as chair of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
“I believe that Judge Williams will continue the tradition of strong, excellent leadership in this, the most demanding division of our court,” said Administrative Judge Marcella Holland at the time of the appointment.
The appointment suggested that though Williams had been named to the bench relatively young, he has earned his stripes among his peers, Anderson said.
“To be given the responsibility of running this division in such a large city suggests that he’s earned the respect of his colleagues.”
Fellow legal scholar Larry Gibson, a professor in the University of Maryland School of Law, echoed those sentiments.
“It would be difficult to imagine a judge with more relevant experience to oversee this case—eight years as a prosecutor, eight years as a civil rights lawyer in the Department of Justice, [nine] years as a judge. And in all of those positions, he’s been a leader,” Gibson said, before adding, “In addition to that experience, he’s extremely bright, level-headed and energetic.”
Attorneys who have appeared before him also had overwhelmingly positive views of the jurist.
“He’s an excellent judge…very stern and no-nonsense and he moves things along,” said Pettit, who has defended cases before Williams before, including a murder case last year.
“He goes directly to the facts of the case,” Pettit added. “He allows the lawyers to try the case. A lot of judges will take over and try to interject his or her opinion and try to sway the jury.”
That commitment—to ensuring everyone has their day in court—may have been the basis of Williams’ decision to sever the cases of the police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death into six separate cases during a pretrial hearing Sept. 2, experts said. Williams denied the state’s motion to try three of the officers as a group, saying it was “not in the interest of justice.”
But Williams also denied several defense motions, including one seeking the recusal of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for alleged conflicts of interest.
That evenhandedness will likely be the hallmark of Williams’ performance over the course of those trials, experts said.
“As you saw in his admonishment of both the state and the defense lawyers last week,” Pettit said, “he’s very fair and he doesn’t take any mess.”