Every day, I see the real live effect of people’s poor judgment. Court television shows have distorted our perspective of the criminal justice system. Talking heads casually confuse the public about individual rights and civic responsibilities. However, one truth has remained constant throughout my judicial career – Don’t assume that a defendant knows the difference between right and wrong. That is, the moral compass of the average 17 – 24 year old offender doesn’t necessarily operate like yours or mine. Day to day urban survival is the reality show everyone should be watching.
The truth of the matter asserted is that countless African American youth are being raised by the criminal justice system, without any attention given for an effective exit strategy. What I see daily should break your heart. Countless scenarios are outlined in court. Most situations bear the unspoken caption: “If only this defendant had paused for a moment to think things through.” My tireless bow-tied prosecutor and my devoted public defenders swear to me they’re not “making this stuff up” as they provide the factual predicate for the indictments. Crazy facts, binding law and vanishing resources complicate this job of mine. Patience and attentiveness to detail are required. My faith journey reminds me to exercise authority with grace. But ultimately, my oath taken as a Superior Court judge requires me to apply the law to the facts, and to sentence as appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances.
This past Thursday we worked all day whittling down the long list of cases. Most of the innocent until proven guilty Fulton County defendants were downstairs in lockup, waiting their day in court. Despite the life altering decisions being made by them, the majority of them appeared without family support. No one really pays attention to the published courtroom dress code. The packed courtroom caused the courtroom deputy to overlook the young woman sitting up front that day, there to support her boyfriend facing multiple felonies. She clung to her First Amendment right to wear a tightly fitted T-shirt. I’m not sure what her intended message was for the court, but her top flashed the promise: “This Bitch is Yours!”
Poor wardrobe choice, perhaps, but you’ve got to give the little sistah credit for standing by her man. The defendant’s mother took a day off from her job to be there as well. Together, the diva duo constituted an important circle of support.
I narrowed my eyes, focusing on the young man standing before me. The law required that his Boykin rights be reviewed with him. It was important for the record to reflect the defendant’s clear understanding of the charges placed against him, his right to counsel and confrontation, that anything he said could be held against him, his rights to appeal the outcome… Maybe you’ve heard this drill during a Law and Order episode. Before we began the customary dialog between the prosecutor, defense attorney, the defendant and me, counsel requested a sidebar. I motioned them up.
“Your Honor, there’s something we need to make you aware of before we start.” Those fourteen words made a difference. They explained that his ill-conceived exit from a Southside bank had ended badly. When approached by the police for unknowingly asking to cash a forged check issued to him as day labor payment, he panicked, afraid of going to jail, but even more fearful of disappointing his mother once again by failing to just do right. She’d say that he needed to grow up already.
In a split second, the fatherless modern day Forrest Gump” decided his only option was to point a BB gun at an innocent bystander, push the stranger into the passenger seat of the latter’s car, and with blue lights chasing him, take off. Of course, the young man’s foiled escape resulted in his being caught, handcuffed and shoved into the back seat of a patrol car.
No profiling this time, this young black male was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Facing more than thirty years (if the carjacked driver had been killed in the final car crash this young man also would’ve been charged with felony murder), the defendant nodded his head and verbally confirmed that he understood all of his rights, was knowingly and freely entering a guilty plea and then earnestly uttered his apology to me and to his mother. “Ms. Judge Honorly,” he addressed me. “I’m sorry. I was scared and didn’t want to go to jail. I promise I won’t do bad no more.”
At the end of the hearing, I had four questions: what would Lady Justice do? Should he serve time? Could this loving, overwhelmed parent really keep watch over her son as she promised? Had his short stint in jail taught him any lasting lessons? Silently, I said a brief prayer and looked the young man straight in the eye. He held my gaze, and in that moment, I had my answers.
Copyright 2013 Susan Washington
Susan Washington is the pen name for a local jurist who has thirty years of actual judicial experience on four levels of the Georgia Judiciary. She is President of the Buckhead/Cascade City Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. Her first novel, Misjudged, was published in 2007 and the sequel is scheduled for release in early 2014.