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In early March, I did my first three-hour observation as a Court Watcher. I didn’t want to do it alone, so Trezell, our volunteer coordinator, matched me up with an experienced Court Watch guide, Julia Cass. She was perfect for me because Julia is an accomplished professional in areas where I have only dabbled. From 1978-1997 she covered the crime beat for the Philadelphia Enquirer, coming to New Orleans in the 1980’s to work with their Southern Bureau. She wrote a book about the life of a Black civil rights lawyer in Selma, Ala., J. L. Chestnut. From 1997-2000 she lived in Argentina and edited an English language newspaper.
In 2005, she moved to the French Quarter right before Katrina hit. From 2009-2011, she worked on a film in New York City about autistic children. Two years ago, she went through the Court Watch training after reading about it in the newspaper. Since then, she goes to court about once a week to observe.
Not only does her background give her keen powers of observation; but, to my great relief, she also has the patience to answer my barrage of the most basic questions. After picking up the docket from the Clerk of Court, we go to Courtroom H at 8:55 a.m.
“Where do we sit?” I ask. “On the left.” “Why?” The non-incarcerated defendants and their families sit on the right. Four Orleans Parish prisoners in their baggy orange jumpsuits with chains around their waists sit on the first row in front of us. Some, we learn as we study the docket, are only accused of misdemeanors. An attractive young woman sits on the right, stylishly dressed. She is accused of second-degree murder.
In the course of the morning we see 21 cases come before the judge. We record the cases that are continued and why. We count the sidebars, or private conversations with the judge. Who is involved? Who initiated? Is the reason explained? When we don’t understand a proceeding, Julia says we can follow the defense attorney or prosecutor out of the courtroom and ask about it, which we do with the attorney for the young woman accused of killing a relative. He clarified the reason for the continuance and gave us some relevant information about bail.
Our job is to look at the process. Is it fair? Is it efficient? Content is secondary. But occasionally, the content grabs me. By the grace of serendipity, Rodneka is there, smiling and waving at me. She is the young artist I mentioned in my previous two columns. As I understand the situation, she rescued a baby from the arms of a woman being attacked by a police officer. And now she is being charged with felony assault. Sitting on our side are about 10 of her supporters, including a regular from the organizing coalition Justice and Beyond.
Rodneka’s lawyer is requesting documents to support testimony key to the trial. Julia noted that because Rodneka has so many supporters in the room, the judge seemed careful to explain and follow procedure and to make sure everyone spoke into the mic. Later in the morning, a young man slowly approaches the judge, leaning on a walker. It is his probation hearing – something to do with drugs. “How are you doing?” the judge asks him as she had asked others with real interest and concern. “Not so great.” He tells her about his surgeries and his attempts at work. He had been shot on his porch while on probation. We hear from his mother, sitting with the audience on the right, frustrated because the shooters had never been found.
By 11:55 the docket has all been cleared. I leave wondering how the judge remains so steady given the intensity of emotion and the time constraints in the room. Julia told me earlier that one of her revelations as a Court Watcher is that although many of the players are seeking justice, the court is also a big machine in which moving cases through the system can take on a life of its own. And yet my first peek into this big machine leaves me with a sense of everyone’s fragile and precarious humanity.
To sign up for Court Watch contact Trezell Ragas at 504-715-0519 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orissa Arend is a Court Watch volunteer, mediator and psychotherapist, member of Justice and Beyond, and author of Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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