Monday, January 29, 2007

A Morning in Court

26th and California. Cook County Criminal Court.

The lines to get in are differentiated by sex and worse than at the air port, the ends forced to wait in the 22ยบ cold. Inside, deputies announce, “Two lines. Step up. Empty your pockets. Take off your belts.” At least we don’t have to take off our shoes.

Courtroom 203 is a small circular space with wooden bench, jury box and tables separated from the spectators gallery by a curved wall broken by heavy glass doors, topped by inch-thick glass panels. Dorothy’s Brown’s name is prominent on the three Calendar pages posted on the wall—January, February and March. January 1-22 are crossed off with heavy black Xes. The gallery has three curved rows of benches and three windows overlooking treetops outside. Four of us wait: two men, black and white, two white women.

My information said 9:30 am. The clerk is here, a trim black woman with short shiny hair. By 9:40 the court reporter limps in, a short, heavy woman in a burgundy velvet top. She’s still unpacking her equipment at 9:50 when a deputy sheriff arrives.

At 9:51, a slim man pushes in a cart loaded with accordion files. He confers with the clerk.

9:57. Judge Brown, sans robe, comes in from the back. He checks something on the bench, then leaves.

9:58. A male attorney enters, throws his coat on the jury box rail, confers with the clerk.

9:59. Another attorney enters. He puts his folder on the States Attorney’s table and consults the clerk. The two men in the spectators gallery talk quietly, go out in the hall, return.

At 10:02 a woman with a police badge comes in, goes out. Another attorney enters and drops his folder on the defense table. He comes into the gallery to confer with the men, one of whom has an outstanding warrant for failing to appear for his last court date. He claims to have been in the hospital and to have papers to prove it. The lawyer tells him they will get the warrant lifted.

10:05 A female public defender enters dressed in sweater and slacks. Her blond hair hangs below her butt. She puts her folder on the defense table and comes into the gallery to ask her client, a young black male, about the communication problem he seems to be having with his counsel. They go out in the hall for a talk.

10:11. Another attorney enters. There is no way for a novice to keep track of who is who without a program. I am a novice.

10:12. A woman in a plaid jacket enters to sit at the end of the defense table and confer with the State’s Attorney. She turns out to be a prosecutor, too. Cart Man, who has the sharpest suit in the room, confers with one of the defense attorneys.

10:15. A woman enters with a red accordion file. She confers briefly with Cart Man then exits.

10:17 There are four of us in the spectators gallery, two women, the man with the outstanding warrant, and an older black man with a shiny bald head. He talks to the older woman, who turns out to be a court-watcher like myself. Ms. Public Defender returns with her client. He sits in the back of the gallery; she goes back in to confer with Cart Man.

10:20. Warrant Man’s attorney comes out to confer with his client. A second deputy sheriff joins the first in the court room but quickly leaves. Someone turns on the court speaker so we can hear the buzz of conversation beyond the bullet-proof glass. Two more woman enter and confer with Cart Man, then leave.

10:23. Judge Brown enters, robed, as the Deputy intones, “All rise.” We stand, sit. Court is in session.

I put down my pen and paper—note-taking is frowned upon in court. Talking, reading, eating and cells phones are prohibited. I keep my Court Advocate badge in my pocket. It’s supposed to send the message to the court that the community is watching, but I suspect no one cares. I decide to save my badge to use another day.

I take no notes, except to record the date to which the case I have come to observe has been continued. What I recall later is that Judge Brown is very respectful toward the defendants, saying “Good morning” to each. I wonder if he is always this patient and courteous. I wonder how Judge Judy ever got on a bench.

By eleven-something, Judge Brown has recessed the court, and the speaker is turned off. I am the only one left in the gallery. I wander into the hall where there are still attorneys conferring with their clients.

I go upstairs to Judge Toomin’s court, room 400, and sit in on the second half of a jury trial. The defendant was arrested for possession of a stolen motor vehicle after calling attention to himself by running a stop sign in front of a Chicago cop. I hear the officer testify about the arrest and certain foreign currency he found on the defendant. Although it corresponds to currency missing from the home burglarized when the car went missing, the actual notes are in the possession of Lake County where the burglary occurred. The defense attorneys object to the introduction of photocopies. Judge Toomin overrules the objection but later sends the jury out while they discuss the case.

We all rise when the jury returns for closing arguments and instructions. The jury retires to deliberate, returns in less than an hour, finding the defendant guilty. The judge sends them back to the jury room for lunch before dismissing them.

Then excitement! The defendant goes ballistic and stalks away from his attorneys. The deputy and the Chicago cop/witness wrestle him to the floor. Two more CPD cops charge in and join the fray. Judge Toomin orders the man back to jail.

I head for the exit, passing a man screaming onto a cell phone as he stands next to a pay phone. Just inside the front doors, on the safe side of the metal detectors, TV cameras are set up to capture the latest on another case, and a well know reporter waits to conduct an interview.

On certain days, 26th and Cal is the greatest free show in town. On any day, it has the melodrama of a soap opera, the unreality of “reality” TV, tragedy, comedy, pathos. It’s a place most people avoid unless summoned for jury duty. And those who are summoned, are prevented from seeing most of what actually occurs. Steve Bogira captures the process eloquently in Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Court (Vintage, 2005), which should be required reading in schools and for anyone writing about crime in Chicago. And for anyone who votes.

720 ILCS 5/Criminal Code of 1961

Updates Illinois compiled statutes


The Home Office said...

Great slice of life description, Michael. I read Bogira's book a couple of years ago, and heartily concur with your assessment.

JD Rhoades said...

Sounds about right.

Sara Paretsky said...

Fascinating post, Michael. I was on a jury once, with a novice prosecutor and an experienced defense attorney. The judge kept falling asleep and the defense attorney knew just when to wake him with a loudly bellowed objection, while the poor novice prosecutor couldn't get shout loudly enough to awaken the judge. After we brought in our verdict, the judge gave us a rambling lecture on the sin of adultery.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Right, Michael. Everybody ought to be assigned to a week observing criminal court. They'd have a much better understanding of a process most people talk about but don't really know about.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

And let me fourth or fifth the Bogira book. Great reporting, great story, great writing. It belongs in the canon of Chicago crime and politics. Which is saying something.