Chains around his belly connecting his cuffed hands and feet made it difficult for him to walk or raise his right hand. I’ve seen this on TV but today I saw it less than two feet from me as he walked into the courthouse. He was ushered to his seat by a bailiff who sat close to him with a half wall between them. He must have murdered someone, I thought.
Several people in the courtroom chatted quietly or on their phones as we waited for the judge to appear. After waiting a half hour, I decided to check my email. A big burly bailiff instructed me to turn my phone off. Confused, I quickly complied. I later learned a phone in court is a privilege for those who have passed the bar. Finally, we all rose as the honorable judge entered the courtroom and took her place high above those on the risers next to her. It felt like TV.
One after another, the attorneys for the defendants announced the defendant was ready to plead guilty. Each line of the petition was read to the defendant before it was presented to the judge. The judge offered to read each line again and asked if the defendant understood that he (all the defendants I saw today were male) had the right to a jury trial. If he chose a jury trial, the state would have to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury. After the defendant responded, the judge announced that the defendant’s choice to give up his rights was “knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.” I was struck by how kind and respectful the judges were to the defendants.
I spoke to a prosecuting attorney in the hall and he told me most would take a plea (plead guilty to some lesser charge) at these “pre-trial” hearings. He said upwards of 90% of all the accused will take a plea before their case ever reaches a jury. On the one hand, this is good. It saves the court and the accused time and money of a trial. On the other hand, I wondered how many people accepted a plea because they needed to get back to work so they didn’t lose their job. Anyone can be accused; an accusation does not equal guilt. This is why half of the Bill of Rights protect the rights of the accused.
One defense attorney did not know where her client was, and feared he may have been deported. Many were charged with violating probation. No one was charged with murder. The man in shackles violated an order of no-contact when he texted his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his child. I do not understand why a man who had not yet pleaded guilty was in shackles. He may be a danger to his ex-girlfriend but not to anyone in that courtroom. How could we allow an innocent (until proven or admitted guilty) human to be treated so inhumanely? Another defendant’s Dad told the judge how proud he was that his son has turned his life around. The most entertaining defendant admitted to the judge this was his eighth time this year that he was caught driving without a license. He explained that he couldn’t afford the accrued fines to get his license back, but he needed to drive to his job. He admitted he probably wouldn’t stop driving. The judge told him she liked him. His attorney requested a light sentence and highlighted what an honest man her client was. The entire room laughed. After hearing his sentence and a program that may help him get his license back, a grateful defendant said, “Thank you judge and Merry Christmas.” The judge returned, “Merry Christmas” to him and then to each of the remaining defendants. It struck me what a stressful situation this man was in, yet he started a chain of merriment. May we all follow his example this season and make this world a little happier.