by Karen Topakian
Before the judge could hear our case on Wednesday March 1st for hanging the RESIST banner from a construction crane behind the White House, I needed to pass a drug test, which normally takes two hours to receive the results.
First stop, the Drug Testing and Compliance Unit, where a pleasant women stood in the restroom with me, instructing me to “Wash my hands with warm water and soap, start the stream, stop it and then add my specimen to the cup.” After struggling with my pantyhose, I eventually succeeded and attached a label bearing my name to the small amber-colored plastic cup.
At 8:45 a.m. my specimen went off to the lab. Next stop, D.C. Superior Court.
The seven of us that had participated in the action and our two attorneys occupied two rows of dark wooden benches in the back of the dark wood paneled courtroom.
A voice from the front of the courtroom called out “All Rise,” as the judge, an older white bespectacled male, entered the courtroom. We complied then took our seats. Anxious to hear our case numbers called, I watched the proceedings before me.
“Why did you do it?” asked the judge to a young rail thin African-American male after the Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) read the facts of the case.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember,” responded the young male wearing a hoodie and knitted ski hat.
“You don’t remember? You just pleaded guilty to breaking a passenger car window and you don’t remember?” asked the judge as he leaned forward from the bench. “How do you know you did it?”
“A neighbor saw me and called the police,” explained the young male in a soft voice.
“So there was a witness. But you don’t know why? Were you drunk?” asked the judge, a former public defender, with genuine concern.
The young male nodded slowly.
“I wonder what else you don’t remember?”
The young male shrugged.
“How old are you?” inquired the judge, whose red bow tie proudly stood out from the neck of his robe.
“Twenty-one. I’ll be twenty-two in August.”
“Is this the first time you’ve been in trouble?’ asked the judge looking directly at the defendant.
The AUSA responded in the affirmative.
Your Honor, he’s entering a treatment program,” offered his attorney, a white woman wearing the standard female lawyer uniform, a black pantsuit.
“That’s good,” responded the judge.
The young male looked back silently.
“You can get into a lot of trouble, if you don’t remember. Bad things can happen to you,” explained the judge as he stroked his white beard. “If you keep drinking like this alcohol will ruin your body, your liver, eventually you might need a liver transplant.”
The young male stood motionless.
“I’m going to sentence you to a program that should help you. But you have to follow the program. I’m giving you a chance today, but I won’t give you a second one if you come back to my court without completing the program. I don’t want to give you jail time you but I will. You can either walk out the front door – pointing to the door out of the court room – or this door, the back door,” pointing to the door behind him, which leads to lock up and jail.
After the young male and his attorney thanked the judge, he signed the paperwork and returned to a seat in the courtroom.
The wall clock ticked onward. Only 45 minutes since our drug test.
The clerk called the next case. A white male defendant in a suit approached with his African-American attorney. They took the standard assigned spot of lawyer at the podium, client to the left, facing the judge.
The AUSA indicated they were waiting for a specific prosecutor to arrive. The judge granted them a few minutes to wait. In short order, the prosecutor arrived wheeling the standard issue, prosecutor’s black briefcase. He quickly took his place on the right hand side.
Opposing counsel requested permission to approach the bench. As they approached, the judge turned on a white noise machine, which blocked their conversation from the public’s ears.
The attorney returned to his client and whispered into his right ear. He stopped to announce that his client had just arrived that morning from Jordan. Then continued whispering.
Again, he requested they approach the bench this time with his client. The judge agreed and again turned on the white noise machine.
Back and forth they went from their spots at the podium to the bench. Always with the white noise machine muffling their conversations. I speculated that they needed the secrecy because the defendant might be a spy.
The client’s attorney invited a white woman in the courtroom to join them, which she did.
Eventually, all parties reached some agreement because the defendant signed the paperwork.
Next case. An African-American woman in her early 50s approached. An African-American male with a bulging brief case and a heavy step represented her. She was charged with stealing from the Kennedy Center gift shop,
“I brought back the jewelry,” exclaimed the defendant.
“Yes, she did,” affirmed her lawyer.
“Where is it?’ inquired the judge, pleasantly surprised.
“I have it right here,” said her lawyer, producing a few small jewelry boxes.
“And the receipt?” asked the judge.
Her lawyer held up a receipt. (I speculated that the woman had purchased the jewelry with a bad check, and then was arrested when she tried to return the merchandise for cash.)
The judge smiled.
“What about the other pieces?” asked the judge.
“I gave it to my daughter and she…”
“It’s not necessary to bring that up now,” interrupted her lawyer.
“Is there someone here from the Kennedy Center to accept the jewelry?” asked the judge to the AUSA.
“Your Honor, we contacted them,” responded the AUSA.
“Are they here?”
“No, Your Honor.”
“Someone has to accept the merchandise,” announced the judge.
For the next few minutes, the judge and the AUSA muddled unsuccessfully through various ways to return the jewelry. Then he asked her lawyer.
“Can you take it back?”
Before the lawyer answered, the judge added, “Accompanied by a police officer.”
The two attorneys agreed to the plan and to a way for her to pay restitution for the unreturned pieces while on government assistance.
The defendant signed the paperwork and left.
The clock moved slowly through the morning.
The clerk called more cases. Everyone who arrived by the front door, left by the front door. The judge hadn’t sentenced anyone to jail. For every client who pled guilty, the judge explained the legal ramifications of their plea: they had waived their right to a trial; to question witnesses; to take the witness stand themselves, if they so chose, and if they didn’t, the judge couldn’t hold it against them for not doing so; if convicted, they could appeal the judge’s decision if they felt he or she had made a mistake; and finally non-citizens could face deportation by entering a guilty plea. He inquired if they understood their plea; if they had been coerced or threatened into making the plea; whether they were pleased with their counsel. His words never sounded rehearsed or stale but fresh and new.
One of the clerks whispered to our lawyer that our test results still hadn’t appeared.
The clerk called the next case.
Two women approached, an attorney and a probation officer. The attorney told the judge her client was on her way.
While they waited, the judge asked the probation officer to address the court.
“Your Honor, the defendant missed appointments on February 3, 7, 9, 14, 21 23. All required for her to remain on probation.”
The judge looked dismayed.
Her lawyer explained. “My client is a new mother living on welfare in a Maryland homeless shelter. It’s hard for her keep these appointments.”
“When she gets here, let’s see if we can find some programs and services that will meet her needs where she lives,” announced the judge.
Both women agreed and waited for the client to arrive.
A middle-aged African American male, and his lawyer, appeared; the AUSA read the charges, the facts of the case and the sentencing terms.
“What do you think about these terms?” asked the judge directly to the defendant.
“I think it’s a golden opportunity for someone my age.”
The judge smiled. “Yes, it is. Many people who finish this job readiness, retraining and placement program find good jobs.”
The defendant nodded in agreement.
“You have to stay clean. Not only during the training but also in the program. You can’t slip up once. Can you do that?”
The defendant nodded again as he tucked his shirt into the back of his sweat pants.
“I know it’s hard. Every time, think golden opportunity,” stated the judge pointing to his head. “Then don’t do the drugs. I know it’s not that easy or that simple but you just said those words.”
The defendant continued nodding.
“I think you get it. That’s good.”
The defendant and his lawyer thanked the judge, signed the paperwork and left.
The judge looked up at us and smiled as he said, “I don’t know what you took because your tests are taking so long.”
We laughed quietly while also wondering about the delay in testing six urine samples. One of my colleagues had taken his test upon arrest; the rest of us had refused since it was voluntary. Now we were trying to catch up.
The next case brought four people to the defendant’s side, a male defendant wearing a tracksuit, his attorney and two other individuals. The attorney introduced her interpreters – a tall woman with light hair, stood slightly to her right and behind her and a dark-haired male with a ponytail, wearing a suit, stood in front of her facing her client.
The judge asked the defendant a few questions, which the female interpreter translated into sign language facing the man with the ponytail, who also used sign language to speak to the defendant. When the defendant used sign language to answer, the male interpreter, used sign language for the female interpreter who spoke it aloud in English. Occasionally, the lawyer raised comments and provided answers.
I watched with fascination as the judge’s questions and answers flowed between all parties seamlessly to provide this defendant with the resources he needed to receive justice.
Eventually, they reached a conclusion. The defendant signed the paperwork and everyone departed.
In a short while, a tall Polynesian woman entered the courtroom, pushing a stroller and carrying a very cute baby girl.
The clerk called her case and she approached with her lawyer and the probation officer. Before the judge spoke, the defendant accepted an offer to hold her baby by the lawyer representing the deaf client.
The judge directed them to work out a plan that she could meet to help her access services in her current location.
As the clock moved closer to noon, a clerk approached our attorney with her thumbs up. The drug tests arrived and all negative.
When the clerk called our names and numbers aloud, we were the last defendants in the courtroom. One by one, we took our places behind our attorneys, ready to listen and respond when addressed by the judge. Remembering to heed our attorney’s advice about speaking to the judge: stop, listen make eye contact with the judge then speak and NEVER interrupt the judge.
Though I had just observed many people appear before the judge, I focused my attention as if I were hearing these words for the first time.
The judge greeted us each by name. With the judge’s instructions, the AUSA read the facts of the case. Our lawyers entered guilty pleas to a misdemeanor, unlawful entry. Once again the judge told us collectively, about the rights we were waiving by our plea. Individually, we each agreed and consented. The judge then explained the terms of our deferred sentencing agreement and asked us by name if we accepted them – 48 hours of community service completed at a charitable organization, no arrests for anything anywhere for six months (between March 1 and Sept 1) and a clean drug test, which we had just passed. If we successfully completed them by September 1st, the court would withdraw our guilty plea, and we will request that the government dismiss the charges according to our plea agreement. If we didn’t, we would need to reappear and we might have to leave by the back door, into jail.
We signed our paperwork. Ready to resist another day, but not get arrested again till September 2, 2017.
Though our action resonated around the world, our sentencing requirements seemed simple and easy to accomplish compared to the life-changing efforts the other defendants that morning faced to put their lives on a steady, stable path.
I hope our universal message of resistance to this administration’s myriad promises and policies will stop the plans to slash and burn the social safety net programs for which many of these people’s success depends.