The Halls of Just Us

"If you have a case in Courtroom A, please come into the courtroom at this time. Please remain seated and quiet and turn off all beepers and cell phones. They will be confiscated if they go off duri

May 24, 2001 at 2:06 pm

"If you have a case in Courtroom A, please come into the courtroom at this time. Please remain seated and quiet and turn off all beepers and cell phones. They will be confiscated if they go off during court."

If you've ever heard that announcement, you were either in trouble or you know someone who was. It's the spiel relayed daily prior to proceedings at the Hamilton County Justice Center.

Once that announcement comes, lives will turn — some slightly and others irrevocably.

Courtrooms A and B and the main outer hall of the Justice Center are strange and frightening places to spend a morning or, worse, an entire day. Defendants, family, complainants and nosey Nellies see people they know and people they wish hadn't seen them first.

It's a slow day in Courtroom A. There are fewer than 50 people in the gallery on a cool and overcast morning early in the week.

Broken, embarrassed black and mostly poor-looking white people sit on the courtroom's wooden churchlike pews.

Some folks file in after the 9 a.m. session is called to order. Some, after the start of proceedings, walk out — they're either there in support or they're taking chances on catching a capias by leaving before facing the court.

Court is daunting. You're called, you're charged, you answer and you're sentenced. Attorneys represent, but there's no valid or just representation for an otherwise reasonable person cited for a misdemeanor who might have exercised poor judgment.

Just how much does the judge need to know? Will telling His or Her Honor how otherwise responsible you are eradicate your shame and fatigue?

Conversely, it's laughable how attorneys representing violent felons run down the defendant's work history or recount how a man answering to charges of domestic violence visits his grandmother in the nursing home. It is justice. It is the process.

The first defendant called is a 37-year-old black man with no prior felonies charged with bank robbery. His court-appointed attorney tells Judge Robert Taylor he's worked a steady job with the same company for two years. Judge Taylor sticks with his recommendation of a $50,000 cash bond, and the defendant is escorted back to jail.

Several defendants later, a 24-year-old Hispanic man charged with setting fire to an apartment is brought in to face the judge. In a bid for sympathy, his attorney says his client has just been diagnosed with a chemical imbalance. He gets a $25,000 bond on the felony charge and a $2,500 bond on a misdemeanor charge.

In all, there are more male than female defendants and more black men than white.

Several male defendants charged with domestic violence each threatened to kill their victims if they pressed charges. Thankfully, Judge Taylor sets high, cash-only bonds for violent offenders, especially domestic violence offenders.

He does not, however, reserve comment or commentary.

"Why you're not in the penitentiary for the rest of your life is beyond me," Judge Taylor says after reading, in a monotone voice, the conviction sheet of one black male defendant. There are repeated domestic violence charges. The dreadlocked man shakes his head either in a sheepish Erkel "Did I do that?" manner or as if to shake off the accusations as a dog shakes off water.

As the session plods along, two things become clear. There is courtroom etiquette — not the rules laid down by deputies or other court personnel, but behavior that's unspoken and quickly learned by novices.

Second, there is comedy in tragedy. Maybe the collective nervousness present makes us laugh too loud and long at the Lucy-and-Ethel details of a person's case.

After charges of resisting arrest and public intoxication are read against a frail male defendant with long black hair, the man protests. "It's all untrue," he says in a quivering lisp a la Truman Capote. "I haven't had a drop of alcohol."

His appearance, flamboyant even in jail-issue blue scrubs, delights observers, who whisper and giggle as the man sashays to and from the podium.

"One of the allegations is that he hit the arresting officer with his purse," Judge Taylor says to court personnel. They respond with chuckles as the defendant is led away.

"I wasn't gonna go there," the judge says.

And this, it seems, is a good place to end it, on a high note of ridicule and ridiculousness.

Most days it's the same — people doing their jobs and people providing grist for the mill. And everywhere the people are just us seeking justice.

Contact kathy wilson: [email protected]