BY JEFF DEENEY
TODAY I SAW the crowd of defendants gathered outside the 4th floor courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert, waiting for the judge to call them. The head court clerk was an older black man wearing a brass-colored Kangol, a tan Guayabera and brown leather loafers with dangling tassels; he waded smoothly through the crowd asking to see subpoenas. He filtered out friends and family members, who were made to wait outside.
At the judge’s order, the crowd filed into court. A broad-shouldered white girl with a puffy, bloated face stood out from the crowd of mostly young boys in track suits and oversized T-shirts. The girl was dippin’ so hard she could barely stand; she struggled to keep her heavy eyelids open and couldn’t see straight enough to hand her subpoena to the clerk when he asked for it. The paper swayed in her wavering hand. The girl’s mother stood next to her, looking smart in a string of pearls, black espadrilles and pinstriped knee length Capris. Mom’s blonde hair was pulled back in a girlish ponytail, and she wore a light sweater over a black tank top.
Mom wrung her hands, her face clearly drawn with stress, as the court clerk asked her to remain behind while her daughter went before the judge. She paced nervously in the hallway once her daughter disappeared into the courtroom with the rest of the defendants.
The marble bench lining the wall outside court was packed with waiting family members. A Latina in sweat pants and a T-shirt steadily rocked one baby asleep in its carriage while another screamed and climbed all over her. A black man with a thick beard and shaved head wearing a Hawaiian shirt printed with palm trees and the names of tropical resort towns held a court session of his own; he talked loudly to the guy next to him about how disappointed he was in his nephew for getting busted.
“I tell these young motherfuckers, ‘Listen to us old heads. You listen to the old heads and you will go straight to the top.'”
He pontificated on the importance of quality legal representation, even during periods of incarceration. “Some of them jailhouse lawyers know just as much these dudes in suits down here. They will get you off, believe that. But you have to talk to them. You can’t hide things from your attorney and expect to beat the charge.”
A tall, young white attorney walked by in a short pinstriped skirt and stiletto heels. The man stopped for a moment to stare at her long legs before grabbing his chest, Fred Sanford-style.
“Goddamn, man, I’m about to have a heart attack over here. Anyway, like I was sayin’, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with a man steppin’ outside the law from time to time. I’m known to do so myself.”
With that, he let out a booming, self-satisfied laugh that reverberated off the hall’s stone walls. An older black woman sat between him and the screaming Latin child, looking exhausted and miserable. She looked up at me while the man laughed and sighed, “Between this screaming baby and this screaming man I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I honestly don’t know which is worse.”
I noticed that the stocky white addict girl ducked out the back door of the court room, making a dash for the bathroom. A minute later she reappeared, headed for the front entrance to the courtroom. Her mother intercepted her along the way, approaching her with a harsh tone.
“Where did you go?”
“I had to use the bathroom.”
The girl was now wide-eyed and full of energy, talking and walking fast; maybe she snuck a little pick-me-up into the courthouse and did a bump in the stall so she wouldn’t look incoherent in front of the judge. I thought it was a well-formulated plan, when considered from her perspective. Mom looked like she was ready to scream.
When the girl walked past me I got a good look at the track marks on her arm. She liked to hit around the wrist; there was a solid line of deep purple trailing the vein at the base of her thumb and two more along the veins on the top of her hand that trailed along her lower forearm.
After she went back into the courtroom her mother sat alone in a softly-lit enclave set back from the hall. She put her head in her hands; maybe she was crying, I couldn’t tell. A sign at the entrance to the enclave read: “For Victims and Witnesses Only.”
[photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]