My First Time in a Courtroom: I Left It Feeling Anything But Satisfied

Content Warning: This article discusses topics surrounding domestic abuse.

 

I went to a courtroom for the first time last Friday, and I watched what unfolded.  

I am not so naïve as to have thought that what I would see would be like the scenes portrayed on Law and Order and all the other shows revolving around the law that I have spent so much time watching.  I knew that it would be different, that most of what happens in a small county courtroom is not so glorious as the drama of the screen.  If anything, I thought what I saw would be no big deal. We weren’t witnessing something so grand as a murder trial or a crime ring. What we were witnessing was just the stuff of everyday lives.  I thought it would be boring, mundane. I was wrong.

The second I walked into that courtroom, the feeling of being a complete imposter washed over me.  The things that were happening, be they charges of theft, domestic abuse, or drug possession, were matters of utmost emotion for all parties involved.  What I would watch happen would affect so many lives. Just because I had thought of them as minor offenses that happened to people every day, it didn’t mean that they didn’t weigh heavily on the lives of those at the heart of them.

The first case I witnessed was a sentencing hearing for a man convicted of domestic abuse.  Right away, the emotions in the room ran high. His family, the victim, and her family were sitting right in front of me. I didn’t have to wait for the judge to identify her with his addresses; I knew the moment the offender walked into the room that she was the victim.  You could just tell. She had been hurt, and this sentencing hearing was an uncomfortable and pivotal moment in her life. Whatever the judge would decide about this man’s punishment would affect them all, right down to her little girl, who was by far the youngest person in the courtroom.  Ultimately, the offender got something like 3 years probation with 90 days served in jail, which you might be thinking is a really light sentence for someone who was convicted of domestic abuse against his live-in girlfriend, resulting in her losing multiple teeth when he hit her in the face with the butt of his gun in front of her own children, and I am completely with you on that.  I listened to the judge go on for about 15 minutes as he laid out and described all the circumstances of the man’s life that led to this lenient decision. I didn’t buy them, but then again I have lately come to be very pessimistic about the functionality and justice of the systems in this country.

The judge cited the man’s risk of losing his job as a reason why he should not be sent to jail.  Were he to be in jail for the precedent recommended 3-5 years, he would likely lose his job, which would lead to him losing other facets of his life and his contribution to the community (never mind the possibility that deserved this loss for choosing to abuse his girlfriend).  He also said that there was no proof to suggest that the crime he committed was a signal of crimes he would possibly commit in the future (in that court, committing domestic abuse once means nothing for the likelihood of your doing so again).

The judge then said, after many other unsatisfactory explanations, that the only thing left that suggested to him that a prison sentence may be the right answer was that the man had not expressed any remorse or guilt for the act he committed (the man had even gone so far as to claim in his trial that his girlfriend had provoked him to commit the act by jumping on him in their bed and waking him up from sleep, and that her losing her teeth was misread as a sign of an extremely violent act because she had been abused by a man earlier in life, to the point where she had “weak teeth”).  I sat fuming as the judge then suggested that to make up for this previous lack of remorse, the man should turn around and apologize to the victim at that very moment in the courtroom. The judge called her out in front of the entire courtroom (full of people there for a myriad of other cases). The man got up from his chair, turned around, and showed his face to those seated in the room for the first time. I saw his face, and I’ll never forget the expression it wore while he said, in the most deadpan and unremorseful voice I have ever heard, that he was “sorry” and he had “never meant for any of this to happen” (I myself would suggest that the only thing he really wished had not had happened was the escalation of the trial and its publication through the court system, along with any punishment he was about to get).​

He then got 90 days in jail and ~3 years probation.  I was very quickly acquainted with judicial discretion.   The victim and her family were visibly heartbroken. The man I assume to have been her father was nearly shaking with anger.  I got the feeling that their faith in the system was no greater than my own.

This was only the first case I heard that day, the first day in a courtroom for a woman who thinks she wants to be a lawyer until she doesn’t and then does again.  I’m still processing through what I learned, and I’m trying to remain optimistic that even if our system is broken (which I keep learning more and more about in a class on social justice—and the lack thereof—in our country and the world as a whole), we can somehow fix it.  I saw our brokenness in that courtroom, and I want it fixed. Maybe I won’t be a revolutionary, but perhaps one of us will have to be.​

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2