Sheila R. Tillerson Adams
Sheila Tillerson Adams has been a trailblazer among African-American women, especially in Prince George’s County. She was the first to serve as deputy county attorney and the first to be named to the District Court for Prince George’s County.
Sheila Tillerson Adams was born in Washington, D.C. on December 16, 1957. When she was in the seventh grade, a black female lawyer spoke at her school. The young Sheila was so impressed with the woman's commanding presence that she set her sites upon becoming a lawyer and diligently pursued her ambition.1 She graduated cum laude from Morgan State University in 1979 with a degree in psychology and then attended Howard University Law School, graduating in 1982. She continued her education by attending Georgetown University at night, specializing in taxation law and receiving her master of laws degree in 1987.2
Judge Adams began her law career at the Legal Aid Bureau, an organization that provides free law services to low income Maryland residents. She worked there from 1982 to 1984 and was a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow in the Domestic Law Unit, working primarily on divorce and adoption cases.3 In 1984, she was hired as assistant state's attorney for Prince George's County where she worked in the Felony Criminal Trials Division prosecuting misdemeanor and felony cases. She was soon promoted to chief of the Sexual Assault/Child Abuse Unit where she achieved success prosecuting difficult cases. One of the most notable was the 1987 trial of Isaac Grey. Charged with attempted rape, Grey had been tried twice previously, each occasion ending in a deadlocked jury and a mistrial. Grey impersonated a policemen, pulled over his victims, and raped them. At trial, he claimed that he pulled over his latest victim, a blond white women, after mistaking her for his ex-wife. Judge Adams located his ex-wife, a black woman, and had her appear in court. Her testimony totally discredited Grey's defense and helped win a conviction.4
On June 19, 1988, in a historic move, Judge Adams was appointed by then Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening to a five-year term as deputy county attorney for Prince George's County. She was the first African-American in the county to hold this position. In this capacity, she was responsible for the legal issues surrounding the contracts and purchases negotiated by the county government. During her tenure, Judge Adams oversaw the construction of the largest infrastructure and public facility program in the history of Prince George's County.5 She also served as counsel to the Minority Business Opportunity Commission. 6
Judge Adams again made history when, in 1993, Governor William Donald Schaefer appointed her as the first African-American woman judge on the District Court for District 5, Prince George's County.7 She served until 1996, when Governor Glendening appointed her to the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court for Prince George's County. Her term expires in 2013.8
As a judge on the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court, Judge Adams has presided over three sensational and newsworthy cases. The first is that of Ronald Everett Strouth who, in 1999, was sentenced by Judge Adams to 25 years in prison for paying a crack-addicted mother cash to abuse her six-year-old daughter. The mother used the money, ranging in payments from $25 to $100, to support her habit. The mother, whose name was withheld to protect the identity of her daughter, was sentenced by Judge Adams to 15 years in prison.9
The second case was that of Alejandro Jose Grant who, in 1998, was convicted of first degree murder. While riding his bicycle in traffic, Mr. Grant was accidentally bumped by a motorist, 19-year-old college student Joy Estrella Mariano. Ms. Mariano stopped her car, got out, and attempted to assist Grant. Grant shouted at her, pointed a gun to her head and fired, killing Ms. Mariano. Then, Grant calmly mounted his bike and rode off, soon to be apprehended by the police. During sentencing, Grant requested that Judge Adams impose the death penalty. Instead, calling Grant beyond rehabilitation, Judge Adams sentenced him to life in prison plus 20 years for gun charges. The tragedy did not end with the death of Ms. Mariano and the incarceration of Alejandro Grant. One month after the trial, Grant committed suicide in his jail cell.10
The final case involved a defamation suit filed, in 2000, against the Safeway grocery store chain. A former employee, Richard Talley, claimed that Safeway defamed him by publishing an unsubstantiated sexual harassment charge made against him. Safeway's Human Resources Manager sent a letter outlining the allegations to a lawyer whom the Safeway executives believed represented Mr. Talley. After harassment charges emerged, Talley attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental health facility, and fired from his job. A jury agreed that Safeway was liable and awarded Mr. Talley an $11 million judgment for defamation, emotional distress and lost wages.11 Three months later, Judge Adams threw out all but $2,500 of the verdict. She found that since the jury cleared the Human Resources Manager of all liability, as a point of law, Safeway could not then be held liable. In addition, Judge Adams found that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Safeway acted out of malice. The remaining $2,500 award was directed against the Safeway employee who made the sexual harassment complaint against Mr. Talley. As of summer 2001, the case was being appealed by Mr. Talley and his lawyers.12
In addition to her duties on the bench, Judge Adams has served on the board of directors for the Law Foundation of Prince George's County, Maryland. This organization provides free legal advice to low income individuals who use the Prince George's County Court system, and the participating lawyers are all volunteers. Judge Tillerson Adams has worked tirelessly to promote the work of the Law Foundation.13
Judge Tillerson Adams has received numerous awards including the County Attorney's Recognition Award from Prince George's County, the Outstanding Regional Award from the National Bar Association, and the Outstanding Achievement in Government and Politics Award from the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Urban League.
Throughout her career, Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams has opened doors allowing other African-American women to follow in her footsteps and advance in the legal profession.
1. Laura M. Litvan, "PG's
1st black woman judge," The Washington Times, 3 June 1993.
2. Maryland State Archives SPECIAL COLLECTIONS (Biographical Series) MSA SC 3520-11851.
3. The Seventh Judicial Circuit court, 'Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams," accessed 19 July 2001. http://www.goprincegeorgescounty.com/Judicial Judges.
4. Litvan, "PG's first black women judge."
5. Therese C. Yewell, Women of Achievement in Prince George's County History, (Upper Marlboro, Maryland: Maryland National Park and Planning Commission), 1994.
6. Seventh Judicial Circuit Court, "Judge Tillerson Adams."http://www.goprincegeorgescounty.com/Judicial/Judges.
7. Litvan, "PG's first black woman judge."
8. Seventh Judicial Circuit Court, "Judge Tillerson Adams."
9. Ruben Castaneda, "Abuser, victim's mother are sentenced to prison," The Washington Post, 3 April 1999. Accessed 19 July 2001 through Lexis-Nexis; "Man gets 25-year sentence for paying for chile abuse," The Baltimore Sun, 4 April 1999. Accessed 19 July 2001 through Lexis-Nexis.
10. Ruben Castaneda, "Bicyclist sentenced to life for murder, victim accidentally bumped him on road," The Washington Post, 15 September 1998. Accessed 19 July 2001 through Lexis-Nexis; Tripod, "Homepage," http:// members.tripod.com/~dntg66f/joy.htm.
11. Ruben Castaneda, "Ex-worker for Safeway is awarded $11 million," The Washington Post, 30 January 2001. accessed 19 July 2001 through Lexis-Nexis.
12. "Judge reverses $11 million verdict against Safeway," The National Law Journal, 19 March 2001. Accessed 19 July 2001 through Lexis-Nexis.
13. Mid-Atlantic Association for Court Management, "The Prince George's Pro Se Project, Prince George's County, Maryland," Resource Book, October 1998. Accessed 19 July 2001 http://www.maacm.org/resource.html.
Biography written by Lisa McTaggart, 2001 summer intern, Maryland State Archives
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