Sitting in the small courtroom on the fourth floor of the Indiana County Courthouse, I decided I don’t like covering courts.
Not criminal proceedings, anyway.
It’s supposed to be a bastion of justice there, where punishment is meted out in accordance with law and with the infractions committed.
The brightly polished chandeliers say so; the attorneys’ tables, glass so clean there’s a perfect mirror image of the silver water carafe, say so; the gold lettering behind the judges bench reads “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully,” a nod to First Timothy and the Bible that says so, too.
But there’s something else there. I see it in the puffed-out chests of the sheriff’s deputies, the way they eye a row of handcuffed and shackled but jovial inmates, shut down chatty conversation and jokes with threats.
Five minutes waiting for the judge and I’ve named one of the deputies the mean one. He stands at one end of the box where the inmates wait, watching them, just waiting for someone to do something or say something. One man cracks a joke too loudly and he pounces.
“Want to wait downstairs?” He demands, and the inmate shakes his head, subdued.
Two men enter the small courtroom behind me. I don’t see what they do or say but they, too, have caught the man’s eye.
“Do you want to join them?” he snaps. “Then don’t try to communicate with them!”
And the men are surprised and irritated. “What did we do?” They ask each other, and I’m with them.
I feel, watching and waiting, like I did as a child, hoping church would hurry up and let out before anyone noticed the restless legs and busy hands and fingers of the toddler in my lap. Every time the deputy turns away, conversation picks up again, dies again when he turns his eyes to them.
Hurry, judge, hurry, before one of them laugh too loud and gets in even more trouble.
And he comes, and one by one a man is let out of the box, acknowledges his free will in his guilty plea, raises his right and swears to tell the truth. One has a mullet. At least two never finished high school — never reached his junior year, even. I wonder why, what went wrong at 14 or 15 years old.
They can’t be still, either. They shift from foot to foot before the judge’s bench, rock their hips back and forth.
“Good luck to you,” the judge tells each after he pronounces his sentence, and he looks at them over his glasses and behind the robe I see a man, and maybe he cares but so many of these parade past his bench.
The probation lady crosses the room to meet with each for a moment after he is led out.
And often, a girl or a couple stand and leave, too. They’ve shown their support, maybe they’ll get a minute outside the courtroom door.
One couple catch my attention the most. Their son looks thin and, though in his 30s, nervous, with a sharp nose and dark hair and bony arms. Caught stealing pain killers from a pharmacy, plead guilty. His father’s face is swollen, whether from obesity or something else, I don’t know, but his tongue is too swollen to fit in his mouth and every breath is a loud wheeze that makes my own lungs constrict.
His mother is small, chin sunk in, indicative of missing teeth and no money for dentures. Her face is old, without color. But her hair is long, and straight, and a nut-brown that hasn’t faded with the years.
She was beautiful, once, before life played havoc with her dreams. I wonder what they were? A son in jail couldn’t have been one of them.
When the bench is cleared the judge turns his attention to others facing sentences but not held in the county jail, and proceedings move more quickly. The case I’ve come to document is called near the end, and probation’s handed down. I grab my bag and slip from the courtroom, hurry to catch the attorney and hear him say he’ll appeal. I know he will.
And then it’s a short walk through the snowstorm to clear a head that won’t quite clear.
Because I don’t know how they got there, all those in shackles, but I’m pretty sure someone didn’t do their job years and years ago. And is it any wonder they have authority problems when deputies snap at jokes?
I don’t like covering courts, I’ve decided.