My Day In Court

19 May

For reasons I am not fully at liberty to explain, I spent my morning in court yesterday. I was just there to observe a case in which I know both the accused and the victims.

Court started at 8:30am, so I took the Skyway Express–Jacksonville’s monorail (my favorite government boondoggle of all time!) from my office to downtown.

Frankly, I was nervous. I was not charged with anything and I was not expected to testify, but something about going to court and being in a courtroom makes me very uneasy. That may have been partly because the courthouse is staffed with crusty, old baliffs and if you want directions to wherever it is you need to go, you have to go through one of these cranky old men for help. Each and every one of them had the same singular tone of voice–disapproving.

After one cranky old man directed me to the second floor, I got off the elevator to find the area packed with people, as another cranky old man was explaining to someone who was trying to get to court roon 5, that the hallway was temporarily closed, because “they are moving the inmates.”

Sure enough, before very much longer, here came a row of people in handcuffs and leg chains, shuffling down the hallway, lead by policemen. That was just depressing.

After the inmates had apparently been moved and situated in their various court rooms, the crusty old man announced that the hall way was now open. The throngs of people who had been nervously standing around (including me) made their way down the hall to the court rooms.

The court room I was headed to, as expected, had a crusty old baliff guarding the door. He instantly reminded me of a character Eddie Murphy might play. “If you are here to see the judge for yourself, come see me.” He kept telling the crowd. One by one, people went to him, gave him their name, and then he would let them in–“Sit on the left side. Make sure your shirt tail is tucked in!” he admonished each and every of them. “No talking!” he added for good measure.

Eventually all of the people who were there to see the judge had been granted admission, so he told the rest of us–“You can come in. Sit on the right side. Make sure your shirt tail is tucked in!” (Fortunately, mine was! Whew!)

Who knew tucking in your shirt was such an integral part of the American justice system?

I sat down as instructed–periodically checking my shirt tail for fear there might be a breach and I would be evicted from the court room or worse–and began to observe.

First of all–it isn’t like TV. On TV they always focus on one particular case at a time. This court room was chaos. There were shackled people sitting on either side of the judge. There were lawyers milling all around. The acoustics were terrible–would it kill the court to provide microphones so the spectators can hear?  It would also have been helpful, for the benefit of the spectators, if  they could have given us a little recap of each person’s alleged crime. But they didn’t. It was confusing!

The crusty old baliff wandered up and down the aisle periodically. At one point he stopped, stared at the row of stoney faced, silent people sitting in front of me and grumbled, in an irritated voice, “No talking!” to 10 people who hadn’t said a word for at least an hour. I am sure he was checking out their shirt tails all the while.

I watched numerous people stand before the judge. In  some cases they were rescheduled for another day. In many cases they pleaded guilty, the judge grilled them to make sure they knew the implications of pleading guilty, and then the judge imposed sentence. Since it wasn’t clear to me what they did (I suppose the judge and the accused were up on the details, but I would have enjoyed just a little more info. Perhaps the court could distribute a Playbill for the benefit of the audience?) I was never quite sure whether the sentence seemed harsh or lenient or just right.

The saddest case of the day, for me, was a young woman who stood before the judge, along with her attorney, and pleaded guilty. The judge asked her a variety of questions to confirm she had done this voluntarily and understood what she was doing. The judge said he wanted her back in his court room on June 15. He said if she failed to show up, he would issue an arrest warrant, she would be in big trouble (I am paraphrasing) and the plea bargain she had negotiated would be null and void. He asked if she understood. She said she did. Then the judge said: “I am giving you until June 15 because in the next 2 weeks you are going to graduate from high school and I want you to be there for that.” Then he imposed sentence. I don’t know what this girl did, but with a plea bargain, she got sentenced to 13 months in the state prison.

The thought of this girl walking at graduation, getting her diploma, then turning herself in so she can go to prison for a year sort of ripped my heart out. “So, what are you doing after graduation?!” “Um, going to prison!”

Sigh.

I was in court for 2 hours before the case for which I was there was called. During that time I kept eying the chained inmates trying to pick out the woman I knew, and I didn’t see her. I sort of thought this one blond woman was her, but she was a lot thinner than she used to be. But I figured since this woman has been in jail since March 31st, she could have lost weigh. I figured incarceration is slimming, you know?

A side note to all of my women friends–I know you’re all honest, law abiding citizens, but just in case you are tempted to commit a felony, I feel compelled to share this observation I made about the female prisoners that should give you pause: nearly all of the women inmates’ roots were showing. Apparently they don’t let you do touch-ups in jail.

Word to the wise.

When the case in question was finally called (2 hours later) I was shocked when the woman I knew stood up to make her way to the defendant’s podium. When I knew her she was a blond. Now she wasn’t just showing roots–her hair was completely brown. When I knew her, she didn’t wear glasses, but today she was sporting black rimmed glasses. She didn’t look like the same person.

This was supposed to be a preliminary hearing. Based on my vast 2 hour experience as a court observer, I knew this meant they would set a trial date or she would plead guilty. Instead, the defendant’s lawyer asked to put off the preliminary hearing because the state has indicated there may be additional charges. (This woman is in big trouble.) The judge penciled them in for another hearing on June 15–the same day the newly graduated young lady comes back to be shipped off to the big house.

Court was chaotic, noisy, confusing and sad. Just having to be in a court room is all the reason I need to avoid a life of crime. (That and the fact that I am just too pretty to survive in prison. You can ask anyone.)

It was like Kafka meets Night Court.

Or something.

The Save the Word today is temerate, which means to break a bond or promise. That seems apt after a day in court.

The mantra for the day is Healing. I can’t imagine how one transitions from time in prison to real life–I am especially thinking of the high school girl who is starting off her life as a grown-up in such a terrible way. I hope there’s some healing for her after all of this is through.

Kind of a downer note to start the day, but life is like that sometimes. Now, have a Happy Thursday.

And make sure to tuck in your shirt!

2 Responses to “My Day In Court”

  1. That Weather Girl May 19, 2011 at 6:38 am #

    No touch ups in jail. That alone is enough for me. Scared straight!

  2. Pamela N Red May 19, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Tucking in your tails has an underlining meaning, I’m thinking.

    Doesn’t sound like a pleasant place to be whether you are guilty or innocent.

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