Tuesday, October 07, 2003
( 11:49 PM ) Jackie
I've been spending too much time in courtrooms lately. It makes me weep.
Sometimes I keep score. What is the racial and gender breakdown of courtroom personnell, District Attorneys, Defense Attorneys, and defendants? The outcome of course is known in advance. Court personnell are heterogeneous group. Bailifs are almost all men, mostly Caucasian males. Court reporters and clerks are almost all women, Latino, African American, and Asian. Defense attorneys are also heterogeneous, though for the most part white males.
And the people being defended. They are overwhelmingly African American men. There are a few African American women, usually one or two Latinos, and an occasional Asian or Caucasian.
Depending on the court, the "audience" will know the charges. These are stated in human language in the earlier proceedings, but as the process progresses from arraignment to pre-trial hearings the charges are stated merely as numbers.
The judge dispenses justice by asking the defendant a litany of questions. Do you understand? Do you agree? Do you waive your right? Do you give up the right -- to time served, to a speedy trial, to a jury trial, to proposition 36 counseling and treatment.
Do you understand -- that you will be on probation for 4 years.
Do you understand -- that you may be searched at any time and any place without probably cause
Do you understand -- that if you violate parole you may receive a year in state prison for each
Coached by the defense attorney, the defendant says that yes, he or she understands. Yes, he or she agrees. Yes, they have made this agreement freely and voluntarily.
They say these things in hushed voices, sometimes only nodding until told that they must speak the answer so that the court reporter can hear the response. They stand there, often in custody, in red or yellow or orange jumpsuits, and say that, yes, they understand, yes, they agree, yes they have made this agreement freely and voluntarily.
During the arraignments you hear over and over that the charge is felony possession of a controlled substance. Often you hear that the charge is a second or third strike, which may or may not fall under the third-strike law.
If ever I had any doubts about the existence of institutionalized racism they have been totally eradicated by this experience of sitting in court.
Today's time in court was in order to witness the proceedings against the individual who killed Malonga Casquelourd on June 15, 2003.
Once again, the proceedings resulted in a delay. This is the third time that a pre-trial hearing has been scheduled, and the third time that it has been delayed. The judge at least stated that the defendant must be in court in future, since the crime was so serious.
Both before and after court I talked with others who had come to witness for Malonga. We wondered why Burgermyer would plead Not Guilty to the charges, why had hired a high-profile lawyer to defend him against those charges.
It seemed to us that an honorable person would admit to what he has done. He killed a man. The man is dead, that cannot be denied. He was driving the wrong way on a one-way street. That's a fact. His blood alcohol level was 2.4. That's a fact, too.
Why would he not just stand up and say that he had done this, that he was sorry, that he hoped for forgiveness, that he wished to give some kind of reparation to the family of the man he killed.
This got me to thinking about what the courts are for, and how they do their job, and what justice is. It seemed to me that the point of the court should be healing. And that no healing can occur when the person who commits a crime denies having committed it.
Most if not all people in our system of justice plead "not guilty" to charges against them -- even if the charges are true and correct. And that makes sense in the system we have. You only have to sit in the court and watch to know that there will be no healing in what we do. The system seems instead designed to rip apart wounds, to grind salt into them, to let them fester.
I go to court, and I weep. Not just for sweet Malonga and his family and for all of us who miss him. Not just because each time there is a hearing it tears us up inside remembering him and mourning his loss. Not even because it seems impossible that there will be any healing through this process.
My tears are equally for the young people who are processed through the courts like so much meat. Who don't have a dozen people who love them sitting there for them to witness the necessity of justice. Who quietly agree and waive and agree to say they understand the incomprehensible. Who will, because of the conditions of their probation, the conditions of their lives, be terrorized again. And again.
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