On Fridays, I have the mixed pleasure of working on the omnibus calendar at our county superior court. This is where 50 to 150 lawyers gather in a locked room and negotiate their cases, figure out their scheduling, and then bring each case on the record so the judge can decide whether to change the trial date, order discovery, change conditions of release, or grant a continuance. This and dozens of other possibilities are squeezed into a very crowded morning courtroom session. And every case or two, one of the guards yells out, “Keep your voices down!” to the milling, chatting lawyers.
All kinds of actions and requests take place, along with some emotional moments off the record. A few months ago, I witnessed a lawyer who was waiting to go on the record get arrested himself and whisked off into custody in handcuffs. He had apparently gotten embroiled in the financial crimes of his money-laundering clients. Another time, I saw a ghostly pale young married couple ushered into the courtroom in their best Sunday clothes, shakily holding hands and whispering to each other. Whatever could the poor hapless things have done to get into felony court? They went before the judge and were charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
In one of today’s cases, the defense attorney had carefully crafted an offer for two years in county jail instead of state prison and deportation, which was the likely outcome of going to trial on a drug case, but the defendant told him he had simply given up and just doesn’t care any more. We went round and round between “I don’t care, you’re the lawyer,” and “I cannot decide for you”. We ended the interpreting session with a reluctant trial set, and the defendant was still muttering on about how he just didn’t care, and had literally given up all hope. I muttered all his despair right along with him in English, to his great satisfaction. As we turned away, he called out to me cheerily, “Hey, thanks so much, Madame Interpreter! Hope you have the loveliest day ever!”
It is a weird place to spend time, partly because we all agree that time is such a commodity, and we all rush around. And yet we spend the bulk of our time there waiting. So many individuals working the system, commiserating about their backbreaking obligations and personal time constraints. The cases shift and change from minute to minute, pieces of a living, moving, complex puzzle. For each hearing calendar, the defense attorney has to find and meet with the assigned prosecutor. They then have to find me and talk with their client. Many lawyers on both sides are in trial , so they send a colleague to cover for them, and I never know who that is. If the defendant is in custody, we may have to wait in line to get a chance to meet with them. If out of custody, of course we have to wait for them to show up. Then we wait again to get our turn to go on the record, unless the judge allows an off-the-record continuance. I tend to sit where I was see the whole courtroom and gallery so I am ready to jump up at a moment’s notice and get one more case checked off my own busy schedule.
Beyond all the bustle taking place within the jail holding area and the active courtroom, there is an audience sitting in the gallery. They are locked out of the courtroom behind bulletproof glass and a guard is assigned to open the door for each person one by one as appropriate. New lawyers are routinely greeted by the door guard with a gruff, “Who are you?” But I slip by the guard as a known face, and find my spot on the bench along the wall, facing the audience in the gallery. Most of the lawyers smile and greet me. One came up to me today to say every time she sees my face, she remembers this adorable 18-year-old drunk driver – a case we worked on together where he was able to get into treatment after “blowing a two” meaning he had drunk well over double the amount needed to be drunk while driving. Last she heard, he was still sober! We all have the cases we remember more than others; the ones that trigger our emotions.
Sometimes my mind wanders as the waiting extends and in a dreamlike state, I find myself guessing which of the people in the gallery on the other side of the glass are the accused. Which are friends and family. Which are with the press. Which are private defense attorneys who don’t have the sense to come into the courtroom and inform the main bailiff that they are ready to go on the record so their case can be in line to be called. And which are parents. Today there were a mom and dad in the front row. They were already seated when I arrived early, and sat there for around two hours waiting. Then I saw both their faces light up with recognition: a pale bearded young man was led into the courtroom in handcuffs.
In-custody defendants all wait together in a locked area. As their case is called, they have their hands cuffed behind their back and are then led into the courtroom by the guards. Once standing before the judge on the record, the cuffs are removed. They are not supposed to turn around or signal to anyone in the gallery. But it is almost impossible for people who have been locked up for days, weeks or months awaiting trial not to sneak a glance into the audience to see if anyone is still there for them. On the way out, if not on the way in. This mom and dad both stood up as the defendant was ushered in. And when he turned after his hearing, in cuffs again, to be returned into the lock-up area, they each signaled to him.
As the ushering guard caught this, I saw his shifting facial expression. He was clearly contemplating whether to intervene of just let it go. It is only a matter of seconds that the defendant has the chance to catch anyone’s eye in the gallery as they are quickly walked back across the courtroom to the locked door leading into the jail holding cell. So it is a judgment call whether to scold, intervene, or ignore the contact. Most guards do intervene because when people in jail get the chance to signal to people out of jail, community safety or trial witnesses can be at risk.
In this case, the dad was a large ruddy man, well over six feet. He looked weather-worn, but his face was set and clear when he rose to his feet. You could see that this dad was here to support his wayward son during his ordeal, no matter how little he understood about what the hell his son must have been thinking to get into this kind of trouble. Dad was here to show support, and lend his strength. But when he and his son caught each other’s eyes for that split second, Dad visibly choked up. His face crumpled, like a slow motion film of a window shattering and falling into pieces as it breaks. Dad dropped his eyes as his face fell apart, and immediately raised a hand in a salute, a greeting that invited the onlookers to look away from his broken face and focus on his strong, work-worn palm, held steadily aloft.
Meanwhile, Mom was a wiry old gal with gray hair in a ponytail and a huge purse that undoubtedly had cigarettes in it. She looked worn, yet feisty. She wasn’t giving up on her baby boy! She jumped up as soon as she noticed him enter the courtroom and she stood at attention during his hearing, carefully writing down his next hearing date as it was announced. She would be there! Right when he turned around after being cuffed to leave, just as he caught his Dad’s eyes, she dropped her pen and pad and pressed both her hands right up against the glass. Then she sent her love with a wide-open mouth, exaggerating the words I LOVE YOU. Her mouth reminded me of a baby bird as they cry in their nest, opening as wide as they can in the hopes of some regurgitated nourishment from their parent. I LOVE YOU! She repeated toward her son’s back as he disappeared through the locked door.
Some guards will order the prisoner to “look away!” Some step between the prisoner and the gallery and physically block the view. When a defendant tries to turn and look about from the bench, the guards almost always order them to “face the judge!” On the walk back, I often hear a guard saying, “No signalling!” Especially with suspected gang members. But this time, the guard let a sigh escape as he witnessed the parents reaching through the glass to their son. Perhaps he was thinking of his own parents. I don’t know. But the guard swallowed and sighed and he didn’t say anything and he didn’t step between them. It takes around 12 steps to reach the lock-up area, and they crossed in silence, the only words being the mouthed I LOVE YOU that mom was so eagerly shooting through the bullet-proof glass.
Few people in the courtroom seem to notice these encounters. The lawyers are in their own world, making their own plans, hurrying along and thinking about what they have to do next. Most people do not want to engage and witness, because we prefer to remain safely distant. God forbid we should ever be in the position of these parents, raising a hand with our face crumbling and dissolving as our child sees us and looks away, with one more sad moment seared into his already sated memory bank. God forbid our own child should ever see our tears and know himself to be the cause of them. So we tend to look quickly away, and not look back until the family greeting and separation is complete and over.
Those of us who notice, like this guard, find ourselves inexplicably swallowing and sighing, almost in unison. As if we had each been administered a mouthful of another person’s sorrow. I have never heard anyone talk about it there, in the courtroom. Perhaps we cannot speak aloud of such things, while we are being so very professional. We are on camera, and we are being recorded. And as officers of the court, we exhibit due decorum. And so instead of talking, those of us who witness these fleeting greetings through the glass each silently swallow our dose of sorrow, and it tastes like love and pain in our mouths. And we each release a sigh, because we find we have been unwittingly holding our breath. Then we remember to breathe, and we pull ourselves together, and we get ready for the next case. Because time is short and there is so much more to do.