Friday, October 20, 2006

More Than Just the Facts

I’ve been doing some research. I like doing research. Years ago, I spent a weekend at a women’s prison. Very interesting and informative. And I was happy to leave.

The last few months, I’ve made trips downtown to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice System. I picked out a particular courtroom and sat in. Didn’t really attend any actual on-going cases, but rather tried to get there while things were getting ready to begin.

For example, today I arrived about 8:45 a.m. Went through the security check point. Actually, today was the first time I got through without being wanded. I’ve decided the trick is to keep on all my jewelry – watch, earrings, ring, necklace. I’d always taken it all off before and gotten beeped. Or it could be that today I was running late and had to run out with my hair still dripping wet. Perhaps the guards decided I was not a terrorist – no bad guy would be caught dead looking like a pool rat.

Took the elevator up to my usual courtroom and found a seat. They were already in the middle of calling names. If they call your name, you holler out that you’re there. The list goes on and on. If you’re late or you don’t hear your name, then later you have to get in line to go up to the clerks and let them know you’re present. Then you go back and try to find another seat since while you were up there, more people filed into the room and took up all available spots.

Some people are called up and instructed to go elsewhere to pay or get papers or hire a lawyer, then return. They go off, eventually come back, and climb over people to get to an empty seat. Lawyers wander hither and yon. Sometimes they know their clients. Most often they call out names and look to see who raises a hand. If your lawyer motions, you stumble over legs and make your way to the aisle, talk to your lawyer either in the aisle or out of the courtroom in the hallway. Then you come back and wonder if you’ll fit in that tiny spot between the young woman wearing the mini skirt, headphones and knee-high fur boots and the burly guy with the dragon tattoo peeking from his muscle shirt.

Eventually the judge comes in. We all stand. He sits. We sit. He chats with passing lawyers. “Good to see your smiling face.” “Like that tie.” “Where’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in a while.” The coming and going of attorneys and clients continues. And the judge sits. An hour passes.

I leave around 11:30. Not one single case has come before the bench. Almost three hours since I arrived. I conclude the criminal justice system seriously needs an efficiency expert to come in and do an overhaul. Surely some of that could be taken care of over the Internet. Couldn’t all the checking in be done in another room? Could the lawyers get there a little earlier to introduce themselves to clients and start negotiating the deals in the back rooms? Why is the judge having to waste so much time just sitting there waiting for something to get going?

I’ve gone up there to the same courtroom about four times so far and it’s always the same. And, no, I don’t plan on going back. I think I’ve learned enough.

But one thing it does tell you, and this is something you already know, start in the middle. Doesn’t matter what kind of scene your setting up -- courtroom, sniper attack, chance meeting of two lovers – don’t start with the mundane, the boring. Start with action or something very interesting. And that’s not always when the bailiff tells the courtroom to rise and the judge sweeps into the room. That could be a continuation of the boring. Start when the judge points at bench three and orders the bailiff to remove the wet-headed rat drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper and taking suspicious notes.

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