Hurry Up & Wait
by Bruce McEwen, May 26, 2010
Lawyers are the kings and queens of omissions.
— Ann Moorman
If you’re late for a court appearance, the consequences can be quite dire, depending on how the judge is feeling. It’s best to come a little early, just in case something goes wrong along the way and His Honor is in a foul temper. Skip breakfast, grab a cup of coffee and run to court where likely as not you'll wait around in the hallway until the bailiff unlocks the door and you can resume your wait from the sitting position.
The lawyers start wandering in. They seat themselves along the inside of the rail, where only Lords and Ladies of the court may enter. Then the defense attorneys seek out the prosecutors and wrangle with them over their client’s charges. As this haggling is going on, the courtroom starts to fill up, and soon the coffle of jumpsuited and shackled prisoners shuffles in. These unfortunates, most of them the catch of the day — drunk drivers, street people, shoplifters, bar room fighters, self-medicators — also are allowed inside the rail, but only as a single chain gang. They're herded to the jury box where they are kept apart from everyone else, like lepers.
Everybody sits and awaits the grand entry of the judge; the wait for his or her majesty could be anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, and no explanation is ever given for the delay. But when His Honor eventually does emerge from his inner sanctum his movements are swift, his manner curt, and his overall attitude is a brusque impatience.
His Honor Judge Brown called Daniel Ford’s name. Ford and his lawyer shot to their feet. “Carly Dolan for Mr. Ford who is present and in custody,” the lawyer barked in fine martial fashion.
“This is on for entry of plea,” Brown said.
“No,” Ms. Dolan said. “Actually, it’s on for a preliminary hearing.”
Judge Brown scowled down at Ms. Dolan who, despite her snappy introduction of herself and Mr. Ford, seemed to wilt a bit. Brown magnanimously said he would let the matter pass for the time being.
“Thomas Williams,” the judge called out. “This is on for a violation of probation hearing?”
Mr. Griffiths, Thomas Williams' lawyer, was already standing, and Griffiths confirmed it was on. “Your honor, the recommendation from probation was that if he admits the violation of probation he would get 180 days, and Mr. Williams finds that acceptable.”
Ms. Larson, the no nonsense prosecutor, said, “The People are ready to submit on that.”
Judge Brown did some jail math: “As I understand it, he had 231 actual days in custody. Is the probation officer here?” The PO was not present. Brown said, “I don’t understand these credits. It’s either 461 or 462. We’ll have to pass until we can get the probation officer in here. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Kenneth Coburn,” Brown called. “This is on for a prelim, grand theft, a felony; and a violation of probation for a felony theft.”
Ms. Fowlds, the alleged thief’s lawyer, said he would plead to Felony Theft.
Brown asked Coburn, “Are you on any drugs that would impair your judgment in this matter; has anyone made any threats or promises to get you to enter this plea?”
“No,” Coburn said.
“Then how do you plead to the charge that on April the 14th you stole a laptop computer valued at over $1,000?
Judgment and sentencing were set for June 11th.
“Robert Hendy,” Judge Brown called.
Justice was moving right along.
Hendy would be back next week.
The judge called “Jeremiah Winger.”
Deputy Public Defender Ferris Perviance stood up and declared a conflict. The Alternate, Mr. Robinson took this one.
“Shawn McNeilly,” called the judge. “Is this on for a prelim?”
“Yes, your honor,” Mr. Griffiths said, “and there’s a violation of probation running concurrent. It’s a matter of arson but there seems to be some question as to what was actually burned. If we could pass this until we get some answers?”
“Steven Thomas,” the judge called.
Mr. DeJong stood up for Mr. Thomas; Ms. Houston for the People. She said, “This is on for a motion to strike a prior conviction but the People didn’t receive the motion in a timely fashion.”
DeJong said, “It’s on for a prelim, but I think we can figure this case out. There’s two DUIs involved, and there’s two reasons. First, he wasn’t advised of the revocation and, secondly, he wasn’t told he needed an interlock device. And they failed to tell him, he wasn’t advised of the need for the DUI classes.”
Ms. Houston needed until Thursday; she hadn’t gotten the motion in a timely fashion, she repeated. They would have to come back Friday.
“Alesandro Esaes,” called the judge.
“Berry Robinson for Mr. Esaes, your honor, and we would be asking that a doctor be appointed for an evaluation. My understanding is that only one is necessary unless the prosecution is contesting it and we’d like to suggest Dr. Rossoff.”
Dr. Rossoff, a psychiatrist, has probably evaluated most of Mendocino County's prison-bound population. The doctor was fine with the prosecution.
“Dean McConnell,” called the judge.
Mr. Perviance stood.
The judge asked, “Is the matter ready to go forward?”
“Uh, yeah. But just so the court knows, the issue with the driver’s license — well, I just have that he failed to pay the fines and fees.”
DDA Matt Hubley couldn’t find the file and they had to pass the matter to Friday.
A lawyer commented as he left the courtroom, “You better get your tickets in advance for the Aaron Vargas sentencing on the 14th of June. It’ll be standing room only. And by the way, he’ll be on ABC’s 20/20 this week.”
I missed the next name the judge called, a Mr. Alvarez. Eric Rennert, Alvarez’s Public Defender, said, “It’s on for a violation of probation, your honor, but the DA is going to withdraw the petition at this time.”
The DA, Mr. Hubley said, “What we are actually going to do is hold it in abeyance.”
Judge Brown said, “I won’t agree to that. You can re-file it later if you want.”
Probation Officer Tim King said, “He’s supposed to sign up for AODP and attend AA meetings."
Hubley said, “I didn’t agree to that. He’s testing alcohol at his employment; he tastes beer at a brewery!”
Rennert said, “He will no longer be doing that as a part of his work. His employer now understands that he has a no-alcohol clause as a condition of his probation.”
A lawyer dropped in the chair next to me and said, “Do you remember a guy named Dennis Boaz?”
“Wasn’t he the guy that married Joan Baez?"
“No no. He’s the guy who got censured by the Ukiah school board, Paul Tichinin, and all the other county superintendents, for making racial slurs.”
“Oh, yes. I vaguely recall something about that.”
“They thought he was calling them the “N-word” when Boaz described their response to the union’s pay-raise negotiations was niggardly.”
“Don’t quote me on this, but Mr. Boaz has filed an action in civil court against Tichinin and the other school administrators who fixed their names on this absurd act of illiterate piety to the gods and goddesses of Politically Correctness. [See Off The Record. We expect this one to be an All-Time Mendo Hit.)]They’ll be in court on June 9th,” he said.
I missed the name of the next defendant, but Ms. Livingston was standing on the woman’s behalf. She said her client would plead to counts IV and V and that the remaining charges would be dropped.
“She was the one who prevented the officers from entering and gave them the false information,” Livingston said. “But the drugs were Mr. Andrews’s. Child Protective Services has placed the child with the father,” she added.
And a whole universe of suffering is summed up in a sentence: Cops, mom at the door trying to block the cops, drugs, screams and tears as the is child taken away by CPS
Casey Lane was called. But his lawyer, Eric Rennert, wanted to appear in the judge’s chambers with the probation officer on this one. It was passed.
The judge called Scott Grimes.
Judge, er, attorney, Ann Moorman stood up. She said, “This is scheduled for a prelim, but Ms. Houston is not ready to go.”
“That’s right, your honor,” Ms. Houston said. “Considering today’s calendar the odds are not good for an extensive preliminary hearing. Plus there are federal issues and I could use a little more time to work out the asset forfeiture aspects and define the criminal charges… I’m thinking something like midd-ish July, perhaps the 14th?”
By then, Ms. Moorman will be a judge in her own right — although everybody at the Courthouse already refers to her as Judge — and she can decide the case for herself. It’s unusual to see the nearly newly anointed judge in court more or less functioning as mere attorney. Ever since the other magistrates gave her the nod as heiress to one of the superior court thrones, which occurred shortly after a ceremony eulogizing the late Susan Jordan, who was Ann’s “big sister,” Ms. Moorman's next judicial step has been pretty much a given. It must have been written in the influential Ms. Jordan’s will that Moorman get the black robes because even the candidates for DA were calling her "Judge Moorman" during the recent lob ball debate they had on KZYX&Z. It appears the court has made her judge in advance of the elections as "the people" follow obediently along.
Judge Moorman seems to have given up her defense practice in anticipation of her new sinecure; she hasn’t been in court more than a couple of times over the last months. This day, she was present to say, “Just so the court knows, I’ve made an offer to settle.”
The offer to settle usually comes from the DA. But the court apparatus usually isn't dealing with a lawyer who is about to become a judge. Ms. Moorman’s bronze eyes were snapping with delight and her barely restrained mirth seemed infectious. Judge Brown was gazing fondly down at his future colleague, his chin resting on his thumb, his forefinger idly tapping his temple, as if to say, "Soon you'll be up here with me, my little lambie, raking in an easy $180 grand a year dispatching these hopeless shlebs in and out of jail."
Snapping out of his anticipatory collegial reverie, Judge Brown said, “Alright, let’s go ahead and reset. May I consider this a joint request?,” he asked Moorman solicitously.
“You may!” Ms. Houston sang out with a burbling laugh, and went bustling out of the courtroom with her file in her arms. Brown was still tapping his temple where his hairdresser seems to have placed a discreet touch of gray which, to the casual observer, might suggest a wisdom that… well, no sign of sagacity only the gray.
Judge Brown called Darrell Carradine’s case.
“He hasn’t been transported yet,” a corrections officer announced.
A recess was in order, and court was adjourned.
There was some Hollywood-type in Judge Henderson’s court getting sentenced. I checked the calendar to see who this stylin’ young celebrity might be. It turned out to be Marquis Walker, the driver in the Chicken Ridge shootout, and I felt foolish for not recognizing him. It just goes to show how much of a liability it is to wear the orange jail pajamas when you’re in court. Those things make you look guilty, automatically, but today Mr. Walker, a strikingly handsome young man, looked like he’d just walked out of the country club at Pebble Beach or a café in Beverly Hills. There was, however, some blue in the seashell print shirt he was wearing. Ah ha! A gangbanger! You can’t fool the experts. (Readers may recall "expert" testimony that managed to detect gang affiliations in all six of the black men involved in the Chicken Ridge shooting.)
Walker, who cooperated in testifying against the two men he drove to Covelo from LA, got 36 months probation with a suspended mid-term sentence of two-to-four years in the state pen. He’ll have to come back again in July to see Probation Officer Tim King. But after that his probation can be transferred to Valencia where he lives.
Walker's lawyer, Tom Mason, asked if Walker could possibly get his personal property returned. Such as his wallet, and maybe his NY Yankee’s warm-up jacket? DDA Hubley chuckled good-naturedly and said, Sure.
Returned property is a recurring problem with the DA and the Sheriff’s Department: anything they take, they tend to keep. Maybe they think it's funny that the jailbirds have to sue to get their stuff back.
On Friday, the 21st, when dozens of cases were scheduled to be resolved, Judge Brown was absent. The whole week had been slow, with no court at all on Wednesday due to budget constraints, but Friday afternoon was still a relief, and Eric Rennert and I were on the front steps talking about some women we knew from the Forest Club when David Eyster and Bert Schlosser joined us. The topic of conversation changed to the DA candidate debate on KZYX&Z the night before.
Karen Ottoboni had gotten the candidates together on her interview program, and Rennert asked Eyster what he thought about the “softball” question he’d called in with: “What was the prospective candidates’ position in regard to the Public Defender’s Office?”
Apparently, the public defenders have had some trouble getting “discovery” from the prosecutors. I have heard these complaints myself, usually directed at the judges, and the response has usually been as bland as the assurances that defendants will get their personal belongings back from the Sheriff’s Department.
Eyster said, “That was a very good question, and I recognized your voice.” He admitted it was more of a problem than DA Meredith Lintott acknowledged on the air. I don’t recall her exact words, but she’d said something to the effect that she had a very good working relationship with Linda Thompson. Lintott’s opponents, Matt Finnegan and David Eyster, responded with pat assurances as well, but it seems to me the withholding of evidence goes hand in hand with overcharging. The DAs like to pile on the charges so they can exercise more power in a plea bargain. It is patently unfair, but this is not news. Mr. Eyster’s campaign platform suggests that he will address this issue, and sort out the charging priorities before the cases go into court, saving everyone a lot of trouble and expense.
A recent example would be the case of Joseph Harris who was originally charged with so many serious violent felonies that by the looks of his booking sheet he was the most menacing character to hit Mendoland in many a moon. My editor put me on the case last winter, but I could never find out what was going on with Mr. Harris. "I like the look of this guy, McEwen," the boss had said. "See what you can find out. It's not every day we get a Mayhem Man." Each time Harris came to court, the charges were reduced, and finally, the case was resolved when Harris pled to, basically, yelling at someone in a motel room. Harris's lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, had some letters averring that Harris was not a threat to the community and Harris was released on bail, his charges reduced to a couple of misdemeanors, namely false imprisonment and terrorist threats. Months of custody time for the guy and court expenses could have been saved if the charges more honestly reflected the actual nature of the crime and Harris's “danger to the community.”
As the reader may have surmised, I am experimenting with a new style of crime reporting. I haven’t got all the bugs worked out yet, and much of what happens on my beat eludes me. But I’m determined to persist. And while I remain open to suggestions, I refuse to be put on a trail horse by either side of a court case. I’d much rather crawl around through the bushes with a scalping knife in my teeth and shoot the occasional flaming arrow at the wagons as they pass. It’s dangerous work, but I prefer it to trail rides on an old stable horse, and the scalps I collect make up for the low pay. If my enemies catch me and burn me at the stake, at least I can say I’ve already been to the happy hunting grounds — Hanta Yo! The rest of y'all can sit around and wait for the revolution to start. But as for me, it’s time to go back on the warpath!