Friends, courthouse colleagues and family of late Baltimore Judge John N. Prevas remembered the longtime jurist Tuesday as a hard worker and keen legal mind whose gruffness on the bench was complemented by a pleasant demeanor outside the courtroom.
“Basically, for as stern as he was and proper on the bench, he was a real teddy bear,” said Antonia “Toni” Keane, his widow.
Prevas, whose health had deteriorated in part due to debilitating spinal arthritis that caused him to stoop, is believed to have died of a heart attack at Mercy Hospital Monday evening. He was 63.
An East Baltimorean who remained true to his roots throughout his life, Prevas — the chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court — was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of criminal law, which allowed him to be an authoritative voice in his courtroom, most recently a dark wood-paneled fifth-floor space that looked across Guilford Avenue at City Hall.
Baltimore criminal defense attorney Margaret Mead, who clerked for Prevas twice in the late 1980s, said the city bench would miss the judge who “from memory … could write a Fourth Amendment search and seizure textbook.” She said he schooled her on “the big picture” of law practice.
“I just feel so sad today,” she said, her voice cracking. “He made me the lawyer I am today.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued statements Tuesday honoring Prevas. O’Malley called the judge “a forward-thinking intellect, and a compassionate man who understood keenly that healing is the highest form of justice.”
Prevas, who wore glasses and a bushy moustache, took a keen interest in, among other topics, politics, baseball and Baltimore history. Mead said his chambers were filled with old newspaper clippings about these topics. His widow said he did not have photos of living people in his office out of interest for their security.
Prevas was famous for singing karaoke at Castaway’s in Canton. (He still can be seen singing Steely Dan’s “Cousin Dupree” on YouTube.)
“He was so bad and he enjoyed it so much,” said Keane.
“Steely Dan was his favorite band, and Frank Zappa was his other favorite,” Peter Prevas, his youngest brother, said Tuesday.
Others remembered Halloween parties and annual crab feasts.
John N. Prevas was born in Baltimore Sept. 16, 1947, to the children of immigrants from Sparta. From childhood, he worked with his brothers at the family food stand in the Broadway Market in Fells Point, selling hot dogs, sandwiches, and — what Baltimore City Circuit Court Assignment Commissioner Robert Ignatowski, who visited the “Prevas Bros.” stand from his teenage years, called — “hand-cranked milkshakes that were out of this world.”
Peter Prevas, who practices law with his brother Steve and, until recently, his retired 86-year-old father Konstantine, said the future judge was a “taskmaster” even in his youth but also a “loving” brother.
“When we worked, he was all business and gruff and everything else, but as soon as we locked the door, it was, ‘Let’s go have fun,’” said Peter, 51.
Prevas graduated from Syracuse University in 1968 and returned to Baltimore for law school the next year. While a student at the University of Maryland School of Law, he still worked at the market. He met Keane in 1970 in the apartment of a community activist named Barbara Mikulski, who was considering running for U.S. Senate.
Keane said it was Prevas’ “sincerity” that won her over.
“He was one of the most open, dearest people that I had ever met,” said the Loyola University sociology professor, who said she married Prevas in 1976. “That was the opening. That was sort of the rapport thing.”
Prevas became a city prosecutor in 1972 and served there for the next 14 years, including a stint as chief of the new narcotics division. He was “really hands on with the detectives” in going after big drug conspiracies with wire taps, Mead recalled.
Appointed to the bench in 1986, Prevas was known for speaking forcefully to lawyers and defendants alike and had a habit of painstakingly reading the law supporting his decision into the record. He tried as many cases as he could get his hands on, courthouse colleagues said, in a quest to make the system work.
Baltimore City Public Defender Elizabeth L. Julian, who has been a public defender about as long as Prevas was a judge, said he could be “so gruff” but she also recalled an episode that demonstrated his diligence and human touch. A woman who had come before the judge wanted to deny her son a blood transfusion on religious grounds, so Judge Prevas read up on her objections and spoke to the woman on her terms.
“He sat there and conducted the hearing with a lot of compassion and ended up persuading her” to allow her son to undergo the procedure, Julian said.
Prevas had been diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in his early 40s, according to his youngest brother, and the debilitating condition caused him to assume a bent-over posture that put pressure on his chest and led to other medical problems. He suffered from sleep apnea, had passed out on the bench before and had had a pacemaker implanted.
Prevas’ first clerk, Hal Riedl, who met the then-prosecutor as a freelance writer in the early 1980s and last had dinner with him on his birthday this year, said his health was poor but he would never retire, even though he had long been eligible.
“John would not have taken to retirement,” Riedl said Tuesday. “That would have killed him instantly.”
“He thrived on it,” Ignatowski said of Prevas’ legal work. “In fact, I think that’s what kept him going.”
Keane and Mead said Prevas would have been happy to die in his courtroom.
On Monday afternoon, he had breathing problems after a sentencing and his law clerk drove him to Mercy Hospital, where he had become a frequent patient in recent years. He was speaking normally, according to Peter Prevas, but suffered cardiac arrest around 7 p.m. and could not be revived.
The viewing is scheduled for Thursday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Leonard J. Ruck Funeral Home at 5305 Harford Rd. Judge Prevas will lie in repose on Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. at the Prevas’ family church, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation at 24 W. Preston St. The funeral will begin at 11 a.m.
In addition to Keane and his lawyer brothers and father, Prevas is survived by his brother William, a doctor, and Keane’s son, Christopher Bowen.
Speaking Tuesday afternoon after a trip to the funeral home, Keane said she is “still numb.”
“I’ve got his stuff here and I’m waiting for him to come home,” she said.