Two young skinny kids stood behind the table facing the judge. They were close in age, but little else. One was tall, skinny and dressed in a light blue J.C. Penny suit. The other was in orange coveralls. One was short and black with close-cropped hair. The other was tall and white with longish blond hair. Neither suit fit, but the orange jumpsuit on the skinny black kid was man sized. He looked sad and lost. The lawyer looked naïve and uninterested.
I was serving my first jury duty, but I was in the audience. A one-courtroom southern town allowed those in the jury pool to meander when court was in session. The least boring thing I could find was watching trials. It was a life altering experience.
The defendant was on trial for escape. He was pleading not guilty. Irony. He was in jail. Then he was caught out of jail. How can innocent be part of that equation? Sadly, I soon learned how.
Seems the defendant had been in an large cell with a small group of other prisoners. Apparently a few of the inmates managed to knock a hole in the wall of the cell providing a walk-through exit to the outside world. After the young man sat alone for a while in the soon empty room, he got up, walked out and went home.
Of course, the sheriff sent some deputies out to pick him up and bring him back.
Turns out the problem is that all the other “escaped” convicts were captured as well, but only this small scared black young man had the sheriff request two additional years be added to his sentence. He was pleading not guilty in order to get this jury trial. He intended to defend himself, due to his court appointed attorney’s advice to plead guilty. Seems that the defendant didn’t really know of an alternative. Hell, neither did I, as I thought about it.
The judge, one of only two truly excellent judges that I have watched in action, tried to understand the animosity seeming to emanate from this odd couple. The judge removed the jury and talked quietly with the young man about the problems of self-representation and finally got to the essence of the problem.
He then did a very human thing. He dismissed the jury, postponed the trial, and announced that he and the sheriff would have a little talk before anything else transpired in this case
I left with a profound sadness made real by that great orange tent engulfing the small frame of this boy in a man’s world. I felt the power that grinds out justice and injustice in a system that is beyond the meager grasp of many caught in it. I was also startled by the power of one judge to act with the kind of humanity I assumed was obligated by that title.