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Criminal Court Observation
I must admit that when I entered the courthouse I was a bit nervous. It was my first time to attend any trial, let alone a criminal one. However, I thought that a criminal case would be far more interesting than a civil one. Yet, despite my decision, and my belief that it would be "no big deal" to watch a criminal court case, I began to feel very nervous the minute I hit the line for the metal detector. It's funny -- but I always feel just a little bit paranoid before I go through one of those machines -- almost as if I really were hiding some kind of weapon without knowing it.
Anyway, as I finally made my way into the courtroom after a long wait at security, I certainly did not feel any more at ease. For one, the room was too warm, filled to capacity with people who seemed to be as tense as me. As I struggled to find a place to sit in the strangely quiet room, I quickly looked around me, wondering if I was sitting next to the mother or sister of some horrible serial killer or rapist. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I had a family member or someone else I cared about to be tried for a criminal offence. From the looks on everyone there, it must be no picnic.
As court began, I remember noticing how undramatic it seemed. The judge, an overweight, Perry Mason looking (the old version) man in a massive black robe strode into the courtroom and went immediately to the bench. He looked decidedly grumpy, and more than a little bored. I certainly would not like to face him in the mood he appeared to be in.
A few minutes later, the defendant came in. He turned out to be young, clean shaven, and was dressed in a jumpsuit that was a bright, hunting vest orange. He was led into the room with handcuffs on, with his hands clasped in front of him. I could tell from his demeanor that he seemed to be ashamed of his appearance, and I wondered who among the observers he knew. His name was Chris Johansson, and he was represented by a small, mousy-looking woman who actually appeared to be in a good mood (I noticed her laughing with another woman a moment before). Somehow, I expected the client's representation to be more somber -- more in keeping with the scene. I guess it may be "old hat" for her.
More than anything, I noticed that the judge seemed to be actually angry at all of us present, and thought nothing of scolding a young teenager for talking to his mother quietly. Although I imagine it is annoying for people to talk loudly in the courtroom, something about the ferocity of the scolding made me wonder at the Judge's perception of his own power -- as if he were charged with "judging" the entire world. This was all the more apparent when a phone rang, and the judge ordered it confiscated for the remaining of the session.
When the court session began, I learned that the defendant had been accused of possession of a controlled substance -- in his case, a large amount of the prescription drug Valium. Not only did he not have a prescription, but he also had an incredibly large amount of it -- leading to the additional charge (and conviction) of "intent to distribute."
When the judge asked the defendant "how do you plead," he answered "guilty, your honor." Leading me to imagine that he had probably plea bargained in order to receive a lesser sentence. After all, why would anyone choose to admit guilt unless it was in their best interest? Anyway, the judge simply responded with silence, scribbling on his paper in front of him -- again as if he were so bored by the job that he could not bother offering any verbal or physical reaction to the plea. I wondered if he started out this way, or if years on the bench had totally burned him out. I guess his apathy was something I didn't expect. It's far different from anything one might see on "Law and Order."
Another thing I noticed was that the opposing attorneys were also extremely "comfortable," in fact, I saw the defendant's attorney turning around to say something to a colleague, after which she actually winked at her! It must be very lonely to be a client surrounded by people who are bored, or "somewhere else," when for you, in spite of any mistake you may have made, are going through a major turning point in your life.
At the time of my observation, the defense attorney offered some important information when requested by the judge regarding the extenuating circumstances regarding his case. It seemed that, because he pleaded guilty, the procedure was to go directly to sentencing (I guess that is the incentive for the state to offer plea bargains ... It saves time and money). She described how the defendant was currently enrolled at the local community college in a vocational welding program, that he had no previous record, and that he had agreed to attend a rehabilitation program. She also asked that the judge pass a sentence reflective of his intention to change his behavior, and also to allow him to finish the quarter at school. Again, the judge responded with silence and more scribbling.
After a painful few moments of awkward silence, the Judged asked the defendant if he would like to address the court. The man said yes, and stood up, called him "your honor" and began to in essence apologize for his behavior. He related how sorry he was for having put his family "through this," and said that he had for sure learned from his mistake. He also asked that the judge allow him to continue school, and he repeated that he would go into rehab immediately if the judge allowed him to (his attorney used this time to look through her papers).
After his statement, the defendant again sat down. About five minuets of more painful silence followed (I was by now struck by how tedious and frankly boring the trial was), after which the judge cleared his thought, and began, "Mr. Johnson, it is my understanding that you intend to attend a local rehabilitation facility immediately after release, is that correct?"
To this, the defendant's attorney spoke up and answered, "Yes, your honor."
The judge went on, "I assume that you understand that you will have to put your vocational training on hold until you finish your rehabilitation. Further, as I am sure you are also aware; there are mandatory sentencing requirements in your case that will affect your length of stay in jail."
Again, the attorney answered for the defendant, "He is aware of those, your honor."
The judge responded, "Then in this case, given that it is your first offence, you have agreed to attend rehabilitation, and you have admitted your guilt, I sentence you to three months in the county lockup facility, to begin immediately following your completion of the inpatient supervised rehabilitation program approved by the Court, as well as a fine of $5,000 dollars. Credit will be given for time served."
"Thank you, your honor," said the attorney, as well as the defendant.
At this time, I immediately noticed smiles on the faces of the people lined up on the bench across from me, and I realized that I had probably been sitting next to the defendant's family during the course of the proceeding. I recall being struck by how "normal" the family (or what I assumed was the family) seemed -- well dressed,…[continue]
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