If you want to see how the criminal justice system really works, pick a bench outside a courtroom and sit there for a couple of hours. John and I are witnesses for the prosecution in a murder trial but have to wait in the hallway near Municipal Court 15 (3rd floor, West Wing, City-County Building) for our turn to testify in case someone else’s testimony influences ours. As we sit there and observe the passing scene, we discover the criminal justice system operates quite differently in real life than is depicted on episodes of “Law and Order” or “Shark.” Outcomes might become official in the courtroom, but they are decided in the elevators, hallways, stairwells, and restrooms outside.
There is an easy camaraderie among the lawyers--they greet each other warmly. Anyone dressed better than blue jeans is either an attorney or works in the building. Lawyers and clients with any clout confer in anterooms. The rest meet--many for the first time, a few minutes before the case is called--in the hallway.
An attorney in a gray suit outlines the options to a young woman in a tight blouse. “You were caught with the joint in your car,” he says. Her husband is a drug dealer, but if he goes down for it, the family will lose the breadwinner. “They’ll take the title to the car and suspend your license for 180 days.” She looks disgusted. “It’s state statute,” he explains. “They have to do it.” He explains that if she’s clean--no more felony raps for three years--the conviction will be expunged and she can truthfully check the box on a job application “never been convicted of a felony.”
A young man nearby cannot claim that. His white-haired lawyer advises him it will go worse for him because his last felony conviction was less than three years ago. (Apparently the three-year-rule plays a significant role in these people’s lives.) His case was scheduled for today but White Hair won a continuance.
Most people coming out of courtroom 15 are holding yellow continuance slips: “Your case has been continued to-“ Did the record cold last week push too many trials into this week, or are the wheels of justice this slow, as a rule? We don’t know. Our own court appearances have been postponed three times. We received four sets of subpoenas to testify as prosecution witnesses to a murder committed sixteen months before.
Another older attorney accompanies a 40-ish heavyset woman and a young man down the hall. She’s on her way to put up bail money for her son. She tugs the sleeve of her son’s attorney. “He’s a good boy,” the woman says. She is incredulous the judge didn’t dismiss the charges. “He comes by every Sunday with a bucket of chicken.”
A young man in sagging jeans emerges from the courtroom with his attorney after a successful appearance. “Oh, I got this other thing going, too,” he says.
“Okay,” says the attorney, a tall man with silver hair. “You want me to rep you on that?”
“Okay, that’ll be a total of 750. You got the 375 for today?”
Saggy Jeans whips out a wad of bills and peels off $375.
“Okay, when is it?” Silver Hair sets down his lambskin briefcase and takes out his day planner.
“Okay, see you then.” Saggy Jeans will brief Silver Hair at 10:25 on the morning of March 1.
A scared young man about 20 holding the inevitable yellow slip sits on a bench between an attractive woman of 30 and an older attorney. The woman asks, “You gonna help my little brother?” She nods in greeting to various people walking by while the lawyer explains what her brother can expect. She might be an attorney herself, or work in the building.
“I’m here for my little brother.” She pulls the young man off the bench. “This is my little brother.”
They all get in the elevator. “You gonna help my little brother?”
A skinny man with coke bottle glasses gets out of the elevator. It’s Ronny*, a clerk from the video store we go to. He’s stoned out of his gourd but still recognizes us. He explains, “I was so upset about this DUI I had to smoke a doobie before I came to court.” Maybe he thinks being blitzed is a legal excuse for missing a court date, or the judge will be more sympathetic if he comes to court baked instead of drunk. In the case we’re testifying for, the defendant thought he could avoid the kidnapping charge if he married the girlfriend he kidnapped. Ronny waits with us while his attorney confers with another client on a bench nearby.
* all names have been changed to protect us from the convicted.
A heavily muscled guy with cuts and scratches on his face paces the hallway. “Five years! Five years, man!” he complains to his lawyer. “They’re going to take my license for five years!” Five years is actually good, his attorney explains: “They take away your license for life, it means ten years. Ten years means five, five means less than nothing.” A suspended license did not mean his client needed to stop driving; it just meant a bigger hassle if he got caught behind the wheel.
I am wondering when the attorney will bring up the cuts and scratches, but he does not because his client received them in a recent altercation that 1) is irrelevant to the traffic violation he was representing him for and 2) represents no fresh charges (billable hours) as no one had called the police.
A rumpled attorney emerges from the elevator and looks around. “Kevin Jones! Kevin Jones!” he yells. He finally finds Kevin, a slight young man who’s been wandering around the hallway, in the bathroom. The lawyer pushes Kevin into the elevator. “You’re supposed to the upstairs! Drug court, man, drug court! I almost sent a sheriff after you!”
As they step into the elevator we hear a snippet of conversation between two other passengers: “Then my other charge, my stolen car charge, that’s-“ and the doors close.
Ronny’s lawyer is finished with his client and comes over. “You can take this, or you are entitled to a jury trial, or you can go before a judge. This is what they’re offering you.”
Ronny mumbles, “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.”
“Whatever you wanna do,” the attorney says.
“No, whatever you wanna do,” Ronny says.
The attorney sighs. “Seven dollars a day for house arrest, 180-day suspension.”
Ronny is silent. He is too stoned to understand that the best deal has been offered up front. I don’t think he took the deal because we never see him again at the video store.
The woman in the tight blouse up on the possession charge is back with her attorney. “Sign this,” he says. “This means you understand the charges and accept the probation.” He shoves the form in her lap. “The charges have been explained to you. Sign this.”
The woman looks away for a minute. She’s seeing one year, two years down the road. Her lawyer is repeating, “And this will be expunged from your record if you’re not charged with another felony in the next three years-“ he looks at her- “which I don’t think is gonna happen…“
A clerk comes out and calls John’s name. He gives me a smile and disappears into courtroom 5. I’m next.
Two men in Raiders jerseys greet each other. The heavier one complains, “They said, ‘thirty-six counts of possession of state property.’ Burglary! I ain’t done nothin’, man! That’s a motherf------- bunch of shit. Then they got this motherf------- charge of assault against my woman. I’m motherf------- supposed to be living with her, they said. I can’t motherf------- do that! And that people that done it was the neighbors. We just moved in there a motherf------- month and they called on us!”
The smaller one shakes his head in disbelief.
Three attorneys are chatting when a clerk from courtroom 15 rushes out. “Do you represent Slater?” he asks the one in the middle. “I have a Slater who says you’re his lawyer.” The attorney calls to his paralegal down the hall, “Do we have a Slater?” At her nod, he and the clerk run back toward the courtroom. One of the other lawyers yells after them, “Is it a male Slater? I had a Donald Slater once.”
A young attorney, papers in hand, stops an older lawyer. “Hey, where can I find this case- would it be in six?”
“Is it municipal?” asks the older man.
“How old is it?”
“They might still have it,” the veteran says. “It’s probably in the sub-basement, though.”
The young man disappears into courtroom 6 but emerges in a few minutes. He takes the elevator to the sub-basement, where he will spend the rest of the day. The older man looks after him. He’s perhaps thinking, You made it through law school, probably had to hold a job while attending classes, and at night visions of Perry Mason and Matlock and $50,000 retainers danced in your head. You end up defending people making $7500 a year, a third of which goes for your fees--in cash, up front--with not a lot left for gold wheel rims or child support payments. This is the life of a criminal defense attorney.
A tall young man in a suit--the first defendant wearing a suit today--waits for the elevator with his lawyer. The attorney pushes the button again and says, “It doesn’t look good, man.”
The client shakes his head. “I wasn’t there, man.”
“They got two witnesses. They testified.”
The client is angry. “Hey, I got witnesses of my own,” he says.
The attorney looks around. He says, “If you can come up with two witnesses, we might have a shot.”
The young man in the suit nods his head as they step into the elevator. He can probably come up with a couple.
It’s my turn to testify. I’m the final witness for the state. There was no disputing the man’s guilt--witnesses and evidence nailed him for the homicide. Our testimony proved the defendant had been stalking for a kill; it destroyed the one defense contention, that the murder was spontaneous and unpremeditated.
He was convicted on all charges and sentenced to two hundred years, but died in prison about three years later.