Hometown Justice

District Judge Edward R. Redd during proceedings yesterday in Roxbury District Court. (Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer)

Hometown justice Roxbury native offers wisdom, doses of reality

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
December 9, 2008

As the 23-year-old wearing a T-shirt and jeans approached the bench, the judge dressed him down. "The next time you're here, if you could have a shirt with a collar - that would be more appropriate," he advised.
When a law student arguing for the district attorney's office described parts of Jackson Square as a "bad area," the judge shook his head, curling his lips in a dour scowl. "What does a `bad area' mean?" he demanded. "You can't generalize an entire community. I happen to live in that area."
Over his last 15 years on the bench at Roxbury District Court, where a day's docket often includes everyone from alleged shoplifters to murder defendants, Judge Edward R. Redd has honed a reputation for talking directly to defendants, issuing legalese-free decisions and a varying dose of avuncular or antagonistic admonishment.
Now in his third year as the court's presiding justice, the Republican appointee and lifelong Roxbury resident often passes judgment on his neighbors and has become something of a people's judge, which lawyers who have argued before him say reflects a modest evolution from a more law-and-order start.
"He gives people more breaks than he used to," especially when it comes to bail for those facing charges on top of more serious allegations, said Winston Kendall, a defense attorney and neighbor whom Redd recently scolded for requesting too many dates for a future hearing. "He was a lot tougher when he started, but he still has an edge. He doesn't mind cracking the whip."
Redd, who ties his long, graying dreadlocks in a thick ponytail, is one of only 41 minorities from Boston to the Berkshires serving on the bench, or about 10 percent of all state judges, according to the Supreme Judicial Court. He is one of nine minority judges, out of 29, in the Boston Municipal Court Department.
As a result, he often gets respect from those on the receiving end of his gavel, and his guff.
"It was scary going before him; there was a big sense of shame and guilt, because this man knew me and looked at me, and it was like, `Oh, my God,' you could see his disgust," said Jamarhl Crawford, 37, who grew up in Roxbury and appeared before Redd on several drug charges before joining the New Black Panther Party.
"I've seen him give a lot of my friends lectures, and he didn't cut any of us breaks. He was someone we looked up to, a positive black male role model in a community where fatherhood and black male role models are lacking."
Redd, who earns nearly $130,000 a year, can identify with many of the defendants who stand before him, and not just because they are neighbors and mainly minorities. The 60-year-old graduate of Boston College School of Law and former chairman of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has had his own legal fights.
Shortly before being appointed by Governor William Weld in 1993, Redd was criticized for failing to disclose that the Boston Rent Equity Board had found that Redd, then a Roxbury landlord, had overcharged tenants, had lied to the board in an attempt to skirt rent control laws, and had locked a tenant out of his apartment in the winter.
Redd, who declined multiple requests to be interviewed, has also been accused of insensitivity and questionable judgment.
For years, prosecutors sought to overturn a decision Redd made to throw out criminal civil rights charges against a Boston man who allegedly spewed racial epithets at a meter enforcement officer in 1998, after the man paid her $5,000. Redd was criticized for pushing the settlement.
More recently, the state Judicial Conduct Commission launched an investigation into whether Redd helped delay a ruling on a potentially embarrassing lawsuit against then-state Senator Dianne Wilkerson. Before being appointed a judge, Redd had listed Wilkerson as one of five witnesses vouching for his qualifications. The commission last year cleared Redd of misconduct.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys say he treats defendants fairly, but with a distinct ken that comes from growing up and living in the community he serves.
"While I don't always agree with his rulings, I'm confident that he is always striving to be fair and impartial to all sides," said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. "He easily could have fled to the distant suburbs and dropped in by day to rule from the bench. Instead, he lives and works in Roxbury, so he understands - better than most, I think - that the vast majority of his neighbors are good-hearted. ... I have to think he's a great role model."
Amanda Martin, a former supervising prosecutor who has spent nearly a decade arguing before Redd, called him "no-nonsense. He yells at you when you need yelling at, and he gives sympathy when it's deserved."
On a recent morning, Redd dished out opinions with an unpredictable mix of gruffness and courtesy to those charged with drunken driving, vandalism, stalking, and other crimes.
When one defendant showed up late and claimed he had been lost, Redd looked at him incredulously. "Are you aware we start at 9 a.m.?" he asked. Then he ordered him to buy a GPS system. "I don't want you to get lost again," he said. "If you violate probation, I will give you the maximum sentence. Do you understand me?"
When a man pleaded guilty to threatening to cut a woman's throat, he ruled that he could remain out of jail if he kept clear of the woman. "You see her walk on the other side of the street, you run the other way," he said.
To ensure that a Wentworth student understood the consequences of his actions after being suspended from school for using a video camera to record fellow students having sex, Redd reminded him that his family had forfeited at least $30,000 for the academic year.
"You understand that two uninvolved individuals were irreparably affected?" he asked, peering at the defendant. "Did you learn something from this innocent prank? Not so innocent, huh? This is probably going to affect you the rest of your life."
Redd then ordered him to write a letter of apology to the two students. "I don't want your letter to explain away your actions, OK?" he said. "I want it to show some reflection."
And after he told Elisha McKoy how to dress the next time he comes to court, the young man's mother said she appreciated Redd's lecture.
Juanita McKoy of Dorchester said she had been to the courthouse too many times with Elisha and her other sons.
"He talks to them like he's the father that they never had," she said. "I just wish they would take his advice more often."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.