U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte was blunt when he sentenced former Prince George's County police officer Timothy J. Moran to five months' imprisonment and five months of home detention for beating a handcuffed man with a nightstick.
County officials, Messitte said, had failed to hold police accountable for wrongdoing.
"They would do well to look into their own house . . . and not leave it to the federal government to pursue these matters," Messitte said during the May 1998 sentencing. "Perhaps this experience will be the message to Prince George's County to act in the future."
The unusual public rebuke of county officials was emblematic of the way Messitte has carried out his duties as the senior judge in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, say attorneys who practice there.
They describe Messitte as highly intelligent, decisive, direct -- and willing to make a broader point in his rulings on high-profile cases.
Those characteristics were on display Tuesday, when Messitte granted a stay of execution to convicted murderer Steven Oken, the first prisoner put to death by Maryland since 1998.
Messitte ruled that the state was tardy in providing Oken's defense attorneys with documents describing the execution protocols. His ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on Wednesday, only to be lifted by the Supreme Court that evening. Oken was put to death Thursday night.
As he did when he sentenced Moran six years ago, Messitte said in his 16-page written ruling that the legal issue before him had broader implications.
Messitte wrote that Oken's victim, Dawn Marie Garvin, and her relatives had endured "unimaginable" suffering.
"Nevertheless, it is the court's duty, strongly reinforced in light of current world events, to see that the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution are respected, even in the case of someone who may be despised by the entire polity," the opinion concluded.
The passage was a clear reference to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which U.S. soldiers physically and psychologically abused Iraqi detainees.
Messitte's decision to stay the execution upset death penalty proponents and Garvin's relatives. Messitte declined to comment for this article. But judging from his record, he is not opposed to capital punishment when he considers the circumstances proper.
Four years ago, he presided over the trials of two men who murdered three District women on a lonely federal road in Beltsville. The jury delivered a death sentence for one of the killers, Dustin John Higgs, making him the first person sentenced to death in federal court in Maryland.
After the jury sentenced Higgs, Messitte noted the extensive public debate about the appropriateness of the death penalty if there are any doubts about the defendant's guilt.
"Here, there's absolutely no doubt you committed these terrible crimes. That's the way you and people associated with you will be remembered. [The victims] will always be remembered as vibrant young women whose lives were cut short. You will always be remembered as a cold-blooded murderer."
Trial lawyers who have appeared before Messitte in criminal and civil cases said the judge is impossible to pigeonhole as liberal or conservative.
"He can be very tough but also very understanding of people who are in trouble," said Robert C. Bonsib, a criminal defense attorney who often tries cases in Greenbelt.
Messitte is known for pressing people convicted of financial crimes to account for the money they stole so restitution can be paid to victims, Bonsib said.
On the bench, Messitte sometimes questions witnesses directly, and he can be brusque with attorneys who he believes are not well-prepared.
"I don't take going into his courtroom lightly," Bonsib said.
Off the bench, Messitte, a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, is approachable. He often attends receptions in the courthouse atrium for artists, most of them local, whose works are displayed in the courthouse on a rotating basis. Messitte came up with the idea of displaying local artwork as judges, lawyers and other workers prepared to move into the newly built Greenbelt courthouse in 1994.
A Democrat, Messitte, 62, had served as a Montgomery County Circuit judge for eight years when he was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the federal bench in 1993. Messitte worked out of the Baltimore courthouse until the Greenbelt building opened a year later.
The White House commissioned the appointments of Messitte and U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow on the same day, Oct. 20, 1993. According to "Courthouse at Indian Creek," a book by Frederick Quinn about the courthouse and the people who work there, Messitte was chosen as senior judge because he is older than Chasanow. Justice Department custom is to give seniority to the older judge, Quinn wrote.
After graduating from Amherst College and the University of Chicago Law School in the 1960s, Messitte served in the Peace Corps in Brazil, teaching English. Fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, Messitte travels often to other countries to speak to foreign judges and lawyers. Already this year, Messitte has spoken to judges in Mexico City on intellectual property law, to federal judges in Brazil on the administration of justice and to jurists in Ecuador on how judges should be evaluated.