Bearing Witness: Images of struggle can’t be erased

By John Vodicka

In my time in our courtrooms, I am constantly affected by something I’ve heard, something I’ve seen. By images. Sadly, these occurrences are often disturbing and heart-wrenching, leaving me aghast or angry, sometimes deflated.

This past Thursday, I observed Municipal Court misdemeanor arraignment proceedings. There were 10 defendants in the courtroom that morning. Thirty minutes into the hearings, a young African American woman walked in. She was accompanied by her 4-year-old son and was toting a large and cumbersome baby bassinet. The 4-year-old was holding an iPad and once they were seated the bailiff asked that the device’s audio be muted. This didn’t stop the little boy from occasionally shouting out with delight when an image on his screen tickled his fancy.

The young mother was appearing in Municipal Court after having missed an earlier court date. Thankfully, Judge Ryan Hope had rescheduled her arraignment for Thursday rather than issue a bench warrant and have the woman arrested and jailed. While waiting for her case to be called, the woman juggled her attention between her son and the little person who was starting to squirm inside the covered bassinet. I glanced across the courtroom aisle as Mama unzipped the bassinet and reached inside to lift out a tiny, tiny infant. She placed the baby face-up on her lap, cradling its head.

I stood up to leave, needing to be upstairs in Superior Court. I walked past the mother and her two boys.

“He’s a beautiful baby,” I whispered to her through my face-covering. “He’s precious. How old is he?”

“One week,” she told me. I tapped her shoulder, and told her she had a precious family. And then I left the courtroom.

I have no idea whether or how Judge Hope resolved this young woman’s case. Once outside the Municipal Courtroom I sat down on a bench in the hallway to collect my thoughts. I’d just witnessed another young person caught up in Misdemeanorland. I made a few written notes:

This woman was unable to find childcare but, in order not to risk arrest and jail, had summoned the strength to gather up her two children, one 4 years and another 1 week old, and bring them with her to the courthouse.

Did she have a ride to-and-from her home? Did she take the bus? Did she walk?

Did her baby need to be fed? Or diapered?

And finally, I wrote about seeing a 1-week-old boy introduced to a court of law. I closed my eyes and prayed.

“May he never, ever have to return to such a place.” 

I have not been able to erase, nor should I, the image of human beings – the majority of them Black – chained and shackled in our courtrooms. As you know, prisoners brought from the Clarke County jail to the courthouse are bound with hand and ankle cuffs and a thick chain wrapped around their midsections. Most of these prisoners are pretrial, meaning they are supposedly at a point in their criminal case where they are still presumed to be innocent. Yet here they are shuffling in and out of the courtroom, hobbling to the defense table, able to only lift up a finger when asked to “raise your right hand,” unable to wipe the snot from their nose or to pull up their orange jumpsuit that has fallen below their buttocks. Here they are, some as young as 17, others as old as 72. 

On this past Wednesday, fellow court-watcher Steve Williams and I were observing preliminary hearings in Magistrate Court. When we arrived, there were four African American prisoners sitting on the benches in the gallery. Three occupied one bench and sat five or six feet apart from one another; the fourth sat immediately behind them, on the opposite end of the same bench where I was sitting. I noticed the prisoner sitting on my row had somehow managed to lift his manacled feet onto to the bench where he could actually “stretch out” a bit. The public defender sat – alone and away from her clients – at a table facing the magistrate judge.

After each case was concluded the four prisoners were instructed to slide along the benches so that the prisoner whose case was to be called next could wind up sitting on the aisle spot nearest to their lawyer. “The shackled scoot,” I wrote in my notebook. As the men simultaneously slid down the wooden benches, I imagined the sound of their chains scraping wood was probably not unlike the sound of slaves moving in the hold of a ship.
Wisdom, Justice, Moderation” reads the Georgia state seal hanging on the wall behind and above the magistrate judge’s courtroom perch. The state’s seal decorates every courtroom in the building. It is there for every shackled prisoner to see while they have their day in court.

So much of what transpires in our courtrooms today happens virtually. Since last March, the vast majority of criminal hearings involving incarcerated defendants have been conducted with the defendant appearing from either the jail’s courtroom or Booth, while the judge, attorneys and other court officers are physically present in the courtroom.
I will concede that this Zoom-like process has kept the criminal legal system moving along during the pandemic. First-appearance bond hearings still take place daily. Arraignments are happening and mostly on schedule.

Status hearings at least give the impression that cases aren’t completely stalled even though we haven’t had a jury trial or grand juries in ACC for almost one year and hundreds of defendants remain unindicted. And guilty pleas and probation revocation admissions continue to happen on a fairly predictable clip.

But oh my, these remote hearings should cause us some concern!
Prisoners appearing from the jail are alone. All alone. When appearing virtually prisoners are, in most instances, able to see the judge “up close.” But defendants can only see the others in the courtroom from a distance, whose images are sometimes unrecognizable.

Prisoners appearing alone can’t possibly understand everything is being said during these hearings. For one thing, who among any of us can understand legal terminology? And without a defense attorney sitting next to you to help explain the legalese, how much can a criminal defendant really decipher?

And, even if one is adept at understanding constitutional law, it still won’t be easy to comprehend when those in the courtroom are not speaking into microphones, or microphones are not turned on.
I have this recurring image of virtual hearings: Defendant after defendant sitting in the jail, staring into a camera while looking at a screen. They are frightened, confused and alone. All alone. Here is the image of a very recent virtual hearing that will stick with me: 

On Friday, there sat Tierra J., in the jail Booth, charged with shoplifting and violating the terms of her misdemeanor probation. Ms. J. had been locked up for three weeks. She’s three months pregnant. I was physically present in State Court watching Ms. J. on the courtroom’s monitor. Sitting alone on a plastic chair, she apologized for getting into trouble again. “I take full responsibility,” she told the judge. To offer support, her sister appeared on camera from her home and told the court Ms. J. had been “clean” for almost two years. Ms. J. agreed. 

“I’ve haven’t used in two years. I’m afraid to lose everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she said, while bursting into tears, sobbing and all alone, while we in the courtroom watched. The judge did lift her probation warrant but Ms. J. was not set free. She still faces several pending shoplifting charges in other nearby jurisdictions, and is remains in our jail tonight. 

I scribbled in my notebook before leaving the courtroom on Friday: “Sitting alone in a goddam booth.” I will hold on to this image.

John Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, an organizer of Athens Area Courtwatch Project and a leader of Oconee Street UMC’s Racial Justice Task Force. He publishes his observations in a weekly column called Bearing Witness.