Friday, February 23, 2007

A sad morning in court

This morning my friend Will Dungee and I had to go to court on behalf of one of our friends who was too sick to make his appearance (and we could not get in touch with his lawyer). At one point, Will said, "I wonder what the Lord is preparing us for by having us do things like this for our friend." I don't know the specific reasons yet, but it was an eye opening look into one part of our justice system.

The Assistant DA who was running the courtroom I had to go to (our friend's charges were being dealt with in two separate court rooms at the same time - how does that work?) made no effort to be pleasant. It was simple traffic court, but she made no ability to speak with kindness. It was clear that she wanted to establish that she was in charge and her rules were the only ones that counted. I understand a need for order, but her rules became laws that were immovable. For example, she misread the name of one woman sitting next to me, and so the woman didn't catch it. Realizing that the DA might have said her name but mispronounced it, she asked her if she could pause and repeat it (the DA was two names down the list by then). The DA said she could not and would not, and that the woman would have to wait. She did not say it kindly, and she seemed to enjoy being in charge. Thankfully, a lawyer later helped this woman, finding her case in the pile and giving it to the DA.

No questions were permitted, and people were treated like an annoyance. Will and I received the same treatment upstairs in the DA's office, as we had gone up to see if we could get the case continued without sitting through the docket. Another Assistant DA came out to see us and said, "Who are you?" in a way that made me feel like I was very small. When we explained our situation he told us just to go to the courtroom and listen for Kevin's name, and when we asked what we were to do then, he began walking away and said, "Just go down there." Will was in his courtroom, and said that he was extremely rude, telling people to shut up and asking who gave them permission to speak.

The thing about going to court is that it's not very intuitive for most defendants because they/we don't spend a lot of time in that place and culture, and if you don't know what you are doing, it's hard to play the game. I see why so many people hire lawyers because it's tricky and time-consuming for an average person to navigate the legal system. And unfortnuately, the rules of the courtroom game don't permit you to ask questions without being treated like an annoyance. Sure, the DA lays down some ground rules before calling the calendar (say either "guilty", "not guilty", "continuance", or "attorney" when you hear your name called), but what happens after that is for them to know and you to find out. For example, I said "Continuance" when my friend's name was called, and then they took out the stack of continuances and began to read the names and assign another court date. But there was a small stack of "continuances" whose names were not called, and were just left there. My assumption is that my friend has overextended his continuance graces, but that was never explained or addressed or mentioned, and I dared not ask.

The ADA also treated the room like a group of 5-year-olds, telling people to sit down rather than stand in the back, which is fine, because those are the court rules, but her tone and demeanor was that of a teacher talking to a group of Kindergardeners who had never been to class before. What I sensed from her was fear and control - she drew these really fine and tight lines and there were no exceptions because unless the laws/rules were kept to the letter, who knows what might happen? (sarcasm) People who had the audacity to challenge those by asking a question or not getting them right the first time were shamed. I also felt that she enjoyed being charge, but hated her job and disliked all the people there who were overloading her docket and were probably up to no good anyway (note: she did not say any of this - this is my perception).

Looking around the room, the defendants were 98% black and Hispanic. The people in charge up front were 99% white (I saw one black attorney) and mostly male (the ADA in my court room was a woman and there was one other woman lawyer). The power dynamic was clear - there was a way of talking, a way of operating, and if you didn't know how to talk and operate in that way, you were in trouble. At first I thought of this as a racial divide, but really it was a class divide. Now, race and class are not easily separated here in Greensboro - the have's tend to be white and the have not's tend to be black and Hispanic - but Will helped me clarify that this was primarily a class gap. The ADA was communicating in a way that was not familiar or effective to the class/culture mostly represented in the courtroom, and the defendents' way of communication was not acceptable to her, for the most part.

It made me sad that our legal system has created a dependance on lawyers not to defend
us but to play the game for us because it's too hard to play for ourselves, and to see that the racial makeup of those on trial was overwhelmingly black and Hispanic showed that our society is still slanted along lines of race, class, and power.


Paul Stokes said...

This was a sad morning in court and a sad moment for our justice system. The conduct of the ADAs was unethical and, of course, inappropriate. There should be a chief judge or administrative judge who is in charge of this division. I would write that person. If you get no satisfction from that person, I would write the administrative judge above that. The court room does not belong to the ADAs, it belongs to the judge. The judge should not permit this sort of thing. He or she is negligent. I would be interested to know whether the judge in that court room is elected or appointed. Elected judges run much more user friendly court rooms.

Marshall said...

Thanks, Paul, for your advice. I will try to figure that out. There was no judge in the courtroom the whole time I was there (I guess that is how it usually goes).

Jon said...

I have been to civil court once when I was 18 for a car accident, but never to a traffic court or anytime to face a DA. I have always been told to get a lawyer and let them handle it and I see why. But it is unfortunate and sad when the legal system does not tolerate the common man who may not be able to afford that lawyer nor allow him to defend himself.

Thanks for standing up Kevin, I know you and Will put yourselves in a very hard situation for him.