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Despite Detailed Letter, Judge's Suicide Baffling

Md. Jurist Wrote He Feared Illness

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; Page B01

BALTIMORE, Nov. 14 -- The handwritten suicide letter was 10 pages long, penned by an exceedingly private man who seldom shared his personal thoughts.

More deeply puzzling to friends and family, Robert I.H. Hammerman, 76, copied and mailed the letter to 2,200 people Wednesday, the day before the retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge shot himself in the chest.

Mourners surround Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg as he reads at Arlington Cemetery of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

His body was found in woods near his Baltimore County home.

"People are in shock," said Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, one of Hammerman's closest friends on the bench. "Nobody knew he was having problems. Bobby was not a person who confided in anybody. He was very much a loner."

Kaplan was among hundreds at a graveside service yesterday to honor Hammerman, a lifelong bachelor who served as a Baltimore judge for almost 44 years. Many came to ask why, to deconstruct the man they believed they knew before they received his letter -- the man who, even into his seventies, skipped up the marble stairs in the city's downtown courthouse two at a time.

Suicide, so often an impulsive act, did not mesh with Hammerman, whom friends and acquaintances described as anything but rash. Order, organization and rules of protocol were paramount in his life.

Lawyers who argued cases before him knew they had to follow a few rules: They were not permitted to be even one minute late, an unusual edict in the normally chaotic Baltimore Circuit Court. They were not to touch his bench. And they were not to go near the framed portrait of Hammerman's father -- who also had been a lawyer -- that the judge displayed on the left side of his bench.

Perhaps his meticulous nature is why Hammerman planned his death for almost a year and a half, according to the letter, and why he decided to offer such a public commentary on his reasoning.

Longtime Baltimore lawyer William H. Murphy Jr., a friend of Hammerman's since the 1970s, was one of those who received the letter. "How often do you get a letter like this?" Murphy asked. "I felt tremendous sorrow for him."

Hammerman's former secretary, Dana Amato, said she and her 14-year-old son were very close to the judge.

"I saw the man almost every day," said Amato, who said she last saw him Oct. 29. "He was in good spirits. He was very light. That's the point. There was no room for anyone to help him because there were no signs."

For more than four decades, Hammerman's presence loomed large in Baltimore's courthouse. When he retired from the bench in 1998 at the mandatory age of 70, he was the longest-serving trial judge in Maryland history. He helped settle civil disputes and protect the city from violent crime.

He was remembered as a man who regularly beat squash and tennis opponents 50 years his junior.

The Baltimore native graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1950 and Harvard Law School in 1953. He became a Circuit Court judge in 1967.

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