When Judge E. Susan Garsh turned to the distraught mother of the victim at the center of the Aaron Hernandez murder trial and ordered her not to cry, the comment reverberated far beyond the Fall River courtroom.
Lawyers who represent victims of crime said they had never seen a judge give such an order to a witness. Families of 21 murder victims signed a letter sent to the Globe that described the order as cruel, and they called for a review of Garsh’s action.
But lawyers who have argued cases in front of Garsh said the moment was not entirely out of character. The judge, they said, is smart and fair but can be blunt.
“She’s no-nonsense,” said Kevin Reddington, a Brockton lawyer who has defended clients accused of murder in front of Garsh. “She was just very curt and clipped and focused and that’s the way she is.”
At 67, Garsh has served as a Superior Court judge for more than 20 years, but as she presides over the nationally televised trial of Hernandez, a former NFL star, her actions on the bench are coming under closer scrutiny.
She has had heated exchanges with lawyers on both sides of the Hernandez case — reprimanding the defense when one of them made a joke while cross-examining a witness, and snapping at the prosecution when they protested one of her rulings.
Garsh, who was born in Fall River, is the daughter of a Russian-American mother and a German father who fled the Nazis. She was elevated to the bench after a career that included a one-year stint as a journalist in apartheid-era South Africa and time as a partner in a white-shoe Boston firm.
A former media lawyer, she has frustrated reporters in the courtroom by holding sidebar conversations with lawyers without explanation. She has refused to release the name of a juror dismissed after lying on her questionnaire, another decision that came without explanation.
Recently, she abruptly suspended testimony for more than a day because of scheduling issues, further delaying a trial that has already been postponed because of snow. Garsh did not elaborate on the issues. She declined to comment for this story through a trial court spokeswoman. Judges rarely comment to the media on ongoing cases.
The no-crying command to the homicide victim’s mother came earlier this month. When Ursula Ward, the mother of Odin L. Lloyd, took the stand to identify a picture of her son’s body, Garsh coolly told her to “retain control of your emotions and not to cry.”
Tina Chery, president of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, which is named after her son who was killed in gang crossfire, was among those who signed the letter to the Globe. Chery said the incident highlighted the need to train judges to be more sensitive to victims’ families.
“Imagine if a judge, if this judge, made that statement to the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. What do you think would happen?” she said. “People forget that the justice process is very overwhelming and confusing. . . . That family is already devastated by the murder and can barely function during the trial.”
Garsh gave the instruction after Ward wept at the sight of a photo, produced by prosecutors, showing her dead son’s body on a medical slab.
Lawyers who know Garsh’s courtroom demeanor say she was trying to prevent undue emotion from swaying the jury.
“To a layperson, it looks like it’s cold,” said Stephen J. Weymouth, a Boston criminal defense lawyer who has argued cases before Garsh. “Obviously, when someone looks at a picture of a child, they’re going to be upset. But this isn’t a place for emotion.”
More broadly, Garsh’s tight control over the courtroom and flow of information reflects a desire to keep a sensational case from descending into chaos, said Reddington, the Brockton lawyer.
“These things can very easily erupt and get out of control and turn into a circus,” he said.
But other courtroom observers say a judge has a responsibility to provide some explanation when calling for sidebar or ruling against releasing information.
“It would show the requisite respect for the obligation of a court to be open and the right of the public and the press to know what’s going on,” said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer.
“We have a right to know — not always a right to know immediately but certainly a right to know. In the long run, trials are infinitely more fair if they are public.”
Garsh’s desire to become a judge was shaped in large part by her father’s experiences, according to those who know her.
Her father, who was living in Kassell, Germany, in the 1930s, received his doctorate in law from Heidelberg University. He fled the country soon after when he was warned of pending pogroms against Jews across Germany, a two-day explosion of violence in November 1938 that became known as Kristallnacht.
In Germany, he had trained to become a civil law judge but in Fall River, he worked in a textile mill.
Garsh, with the help of scholarships, attended Barnard College and graduated from Harvard Law School. She married a South African man she met in Puerto Rico during a student conference and raised two children while rising through the ranks of Bingham, Dana and Gould in Boston. There, she became a partner.
As a judge, she is known for rattling off case law from the bench when ruling against a lawyer’s motion. Reddington said he has seen her consult a computer at her bench to look up cases so she can back up her rulings at sidebar conferences.
“She is a studious person and careful,” said Leslie Plimpton, a retired lawyer and longtime friend. “From what I know of Susan, she’s going to lean over backwards not to favor one side over the other.”
During her confirmation hearings in 1993, Garsh said her work as a reporter in South Africa, where she witnessed racism and lawlessness, made her appreciate the legal rights afforded to Americans.
“If confirmed,” she told the governor’s council, “I will treat every person who comes before me with dignity and respect.”
Because of an editing error previous version of this story misidentified the location of the Aaron Hernandez trial.