Sunday, September 5, 2010

Scenes From A Courthouse Or Two

Getting into a criminal court is very easy for defendants. Look at someone funny, and get arrested for breach of the peace: lawmen will strip you down, cuff you, and shuffle you in through the back door. But suppose you are a lawyer, a juror or a loved on coming to view the proceedings? In that case, you come in through the front door, and that means you must clear the metal detector.

I am all in favor of courthouse security. Court is an often crazy place. The emotions released by litigation are rarely positive. Find a deadly sin, and watch it walk the halls of a criminal court. I want the marshals watching my back.

But just how dangerous is a good-looking young woman wearing a little too much jewelry? 

It was hotter than a Haitian barbecue in Hartford, Connecticut last week. Bright sun, high temperatures and high humidity gave the city a tropical feel. The cool air conditioning of the courthouse was an oasis I sought eagerly after a lunchtime walk. There was a long line to get into the court.

I hate lines. In my version of Hell, I will wait forever with a group of gum-popping loudmouths before being admitted to no place in particular. But I view waiting as an occasion to work at being graceful; I am at least that much a Puritan.

The line at the door did not move. The Sun was hot. I was due in court to resume jury selection. Screw graciousness, I craned my neck to see what the hold up was. 

A young woman dolled up and looking like she was heading for a night on the town stood at metal detector. A marshal was prowling through a purse large enough to serve as a mobile homeless shelter.

"Walk through he metal detector again," she was told. Three sets of eyes followed her as she swayed through. When the detector beeped again, folks in the line sighed; the marshals were looking all right. It was too hot for those of us in air conditioning to enjoy this epic.

"Take off your belt," a marshal said. As she removed it and walked through a detector that beeped yet again, I lost my patience. The three marshals stood debating what to do. Folks standing on line were now muttering aloud.

"Just ask her for her damn phone number and get it over with," I said.

In short order, she was determined to be no threat to security, and we were admitted to court. I don't know if anyone got a phone number. I've been to court thousands of times and never saw a stand off like that. Perhaps it was just the heat.


I stopped in a courthouse in New Haven one afternoon to interview a witness I intend to call in another case. I stopped outside the courtroom of a popular judge, hoping to pop in to say hello.

There was a metal detector on the sixth floor of the court. How odd, I thought. Normally, one at the front door downstairs is enough. Then I noticed a can of white paint and a paint brush near the door. A metal detector, a touch up? Since when did justice need a face lift? Was a Picasso going on display?

Then I spotted the telltale sign: The name on the courtroom door had been changed to that of the judge presiding over the case of Steven Hayes, one of the men accused of slaughtering the Petit family in Cheshire in 2007. The trial, it seems, has been moved to the building's largest courtroom.

That makes sense. I recall trying a notorious case in that very room five years ago. There were plenty of spectators at that trial.

But no one touched up the painting for my defendant. Someone in Judicial is playing Potemkin. I wonder if they will be passing out seat cushions at the door?


The woman sat in the front row as the judge told them about the case. When he told them the charge was murder, it was if a granite curtain fell. Her eyes grew cold, and she seemed almost to stiffen. I was at once wary of her as a potential juror, although I could not say why.

When I stood to tell the group my client's defense was self-defense, I stole a quick glance at her. She scared me.

Later in the day, when it came time to interview her for jury service, she sat alone in the witness box. Before the questioning could proceed, she told the judge her daughter had been murdered a decade ago. No killer had ever been arrested. "I will never get any justice," she said, in a tone so mournful it felt as though her daughter's grave had opened in the very courtroom, releasing a wandering soul in search of rest. The woman cried, childlike.

We all sat, stunned into respectful silence. When she left the room, all of us sat quietly for what seemed like a long time. Nothing could be said. Nothing could be done. The coldness I had seen in her eyes had overtaken the room. For an instant, we all knew the horror that had become a permanent part of her life.