Observances: One Hour in a U.S. Courtroom

I was recently offered the opportunity to observe a criminal trial in the US.

From a distance, the courthouse looks like an art museum. It is glass and silver, elegant and spacious. The lobby is huge, with lofty ceilings. The security gates are set back, so you have to walk a significant distance before you’re sure you’re in the right line.

My key-chain is confiscated at the gate. It is a cute little metal kitty key-chain that doubles as a nasty set of knuckledusters. My sister gave it to me when I arrived in California; I had forgotten I had it. The guards (bailiffs?) take it and give me a receipt. They are civil but clearly left their senses of humor at home.

Once you’re through the gates, you are confronted with the courthouse courtyard, a beautiful Zen-inspired minimalist garden with the required burbling fountain and burnished benches. There are a few court employees enjoying their Subway lunches in the cheerful sunshine.

To the right are a rows of television screens attached to the wall, listing the locations of current court cases. It reminded me of a race track: we have the winners!

The elevators are on the left, behind the elegant Vs of the escalators. I follow the lead of the natives and take the elevator. There is one gentleman in the elevator. He is cheerful and wears a name badge. I press “4”.

“Oh, four,” he smiles politely.

I raise my eyebrows and smile encouragingly.

“Four’s not good. I’m happy to get out on three every day, let me tell you.” He’s so cheerful I’m not sure what to say. Clearly the fourth floor is for something, but I’m not sure what.

He departs with a chuckle on the third floor.

The fourth floor is a new, brightly lit airport terminal. A long corridor flanked on one side by glass and sunlight, the other by a row of doors leading to individual courtrooms. The fourth floor is as tasteful as the lobby,  like a boutique hotel for business travelers.

There are small clumps of people sitting on the benches lining the corridor. It’s very quiet, interrupted by the occasional murmurings or whisper-shouts, like a hospital waiting room during a lull.

“My” courtroom is the second to last at the far end of the corridor. I am about 20 minutes early, so I find a bench near the window and look around me.

There are three people with “JUROR” badges. All three of them are young, and look like office temps who are about to be interviewed for the same permanent position. They look at me nervously: are you a juror, too?


There are a few bailiffs circulating. They are extremely civil and soft-spoken. There is an elderly couple, side by side on a bench. They don’t talk and wear with no expression whatsoever.

A small group sits across from me. An older woman, maybe late 50’s, with dreads and a black hoodie that insists, in fuchsia, that “You’re never too old for Hello Kitty!”, is conversing with a chubby, blonde woman in floral stretch pants. Next to them is a young  man, dressed in a red basketball outfit. He’s on his phone, trying very hard to forget he is here. The women whisper; the Hello Kitty lady is upset and the blonde woman is reassuring her.

My friend arrives and sits down next to me. We barely exchange a few words when the Hello Kitty woman approaches. She is both hesitant and aggressive. She has some words for my friend, one of the defense attorneys. She is one of the victims’ mothers. She is crying. She may be drunk. I can’t tell. Her blonde friend tries to bring her back to her seat, to calm her down, but she’ll have her say, thank you very much.

My friend, whom I don’t yet know very well, is a marvel. He welcomes her. He gives her all his attention. He sympathizes, “I have children…”. He screws up only once, by telling her he can see her resemblance to her sons (deceased and living). She narrows her eyes – this lady has no time for bullshit – and she later reveals she fostered one (or both?). She forgives him for doing his job. He’s better than the other one.

“The other one” then makes an appearance. Shuffling up, a tall, lanky beanpole, this defense attorney looks like nothing more than a bitter high school guidance counselor from Vermont. He seems rumpled. His hair is white and messy.

He interrupts, inserting himself between the Hello Kitty lady and my friend, asking him an inane question while ignoring everyone else. My friend politely shoos him away and gives his attention back to the lady. He comforts her and then she wanders back to her friend. She is still crying, muttering, and her friend leads her to a quiet corner and talks to her very seriously.

My friend excuses himself and goes off to do some attorney thing. I sit and observe.

The Hello Kitty lady is arguing with her blonde friend. “I’m gonna tell ’em. Fukkit,I have the right…” And so on. The blonde is trying to reel her back in, trying to quiet her down. What a good friend, I think. She gets the attention of the basketball kid and I hear her admonishing him, repeatedly. “Talk to her!” Kids these days.

Court officials have started accumulating in front of the courtroom door. You can tell they are court officials because they are in casual business attire, and talk like they are returning to the office after lunch, instead of a preliminary hearing for a capital crime. The three jurors have come together like magnets and sit in a nervous herd.

The courtroom opens and people start filing in. Instead of entering the courtroom, though, I see the prosecuting attorney and her detective scrambling past me over to the Hello Kitty lady. My friend pops over and whispers, “She wants to tell us something, but her friend is trying to stop her.”

There is a flurry of conversation. The blonde is having none of it. The Hello Kitty lady is becoming more agitated. There are “shushes”. I can’t hear properly. There is some kind of conclusion and everyone heads for the courtroom. I wait a little, then follow.

The courtroom is neat, clean and looks nothing like they do on TV. It’s a room the size of a classroom with a big desk thing in the middle, with two rows of desks facing it, and before that, the little audience area. There are no windows. The Great Seal of California is enshrined in the center of the back wall. It’s in monochrome relief and looks like Davy Crockett and a pet bear are having a picnic near the beach. Overall, the courtroom looks like it was designed by IKEA’s mom: soft, generic wood, greige carpet, and sensible lighting. I sit in the first chair of the third row on the left.

One of the bailiffs comes over and asks me what I am doing here. My brain goes oh crap, but after a second my mouth blurts out, “I’m an observer” instead of, “I’m a Canadian tourist. Hey, is that a REAL gun?” He looks relieved and says I can stay where I am. He continues to quietly herd people into defense or prosecution.

It is very hard not to stare slowly at everyone around me. The available seating for the defense is half the size of the one for prosecution. The quiet elderly couple sits in the front row of the defense side. They don’t speak, they don’t move. They remind me of the stones at the base of a waterfall, worn smooth. In the last row are two young women in red athletic gear. They appear generally unconcerned, flipping their hair and messing with their phones. The blonde woman and the Hello Kitty lady’s son sit two rows in front of me. I don’t see the Hello Kitty lady, or hear her.

The judge enters from a door in the back of the courtroom. He leaves the door open, so I can make out some of the corridor beyond. It looks featureless. I wonder if the courthouse is criss-crossed with access tunnels for judges, and if they’ve ever seen Ridley Scott’s Aliens.

The judge could be a game-show host. He radiates friendly wimpyness, like Ryan Seacrest meets Anderson Cooper. He moves like there is a spotlight on him at all times. He smiles more than necessary.

The court officials are grouped in the center, around the judge’s desk. They are all chit-chatting. The judge asks my friend about his upcoming vacation; they discuss the pros and cons of bicycling through northern Vietnam; chuckle about the vagaries of travel and make little quips like any colleagues of long-acquaintance. The only one not partaking in the bonhomie is Mr. Bitter Guidance Counselor.

The judge authorizes the bailiff to call in the defendants. Moments later, a side door opens and two men shuffle-in, cuffed by the hands and ankles. They sit next to their respective attorneys. I can’t see much, only that they can’t be more than 30, and each has some fading tattoos behind their ears.

Ignoring the defendants, the courtroom conversation turns to where they last left off, and there are a few more chuckles. The judge makes a serious face. A problematic witness from Friday. Is he here? No? What difference would it make if he was — he didn’t answer a single one of my questions last time. “I don’t know” for every question. As if he doesn’t know. So he’s not here? We asked him to be here, Your Honor. No, Your Honor, he didn’t contact us although we told him to. Well. Please put that on the record. Bailiff, can you get that moving please? $50,000. (Gasps.) No, wait, he IS here. Yes, he’s entering the courtroom now. Ok, let the record show that the witness has arrived.

This witness has entered the court right behind me and I can’t see him without turning around completely.

After some formalities, they call him to the stand. Before he can get there, my friend objects. He suggests that the judge request identification from all the courtroom observers (oh crap are foreign nationals allowed to be observers?). A rather heated debate then follows (paraphrased):

Judge: Why would I do that?

Attorney: Because we we suspect witnesses are being intimidated.

Judge: In THIS courtroom? Now? Today?

Attorney: Yes, your Honor.

Judge: Who is intimidating witnesses?

Attorney: One of the victim’s mothers was right outside this courtroom and approached us to tell us something about this case. Her friend and son (points at the blonde and the son) tried to prevent her.

Judge: Is she a witness in this trial?

Attorney: No, Your Honor, but very clearly she might be.

At this point, the other attorneys jump in, supporting the idea with precedents. The judge, surprisingly, refuses to issue the order. I am not asked for my ID, nor is anyone else. The blonde and the son did not visibly react throughout the entire exchange. I do not see the Hello Kitty lady again.

The court returns to process. The witness is handsome and presentable – he could be Jaden Smith, awake. I can’t guess his age, or his education but he’s under 25. They run through some preliminary questions. It’s clear this kid isn’t cowed – he is confident and ready. The initial questioning reveals that this witness was in one of the cars involved in the shoot-out. He was sitting in the back and was the first person to be shot. Luckily, he was hit in the arm.

Yes, he knew the driver, So-and-So, now deceased. No, he didn’t remember what time they got in the car to go to the park. No, he didn’t remember when they arrived. Yes, he probably smoked marijuana that day but he couldn’t remember. No, he didn’t know the person who was in the passenger seat in front of him. Didn’t know him, never seen him before. No, never heard of Crips. Well, I heard of “cripples”, you know, like “crips”. No, not Crips. No, man, I never heard of Bloods. Nope.

The white-haired attorney is becoming blustery. He suggests the witness cannot read (but lo, he can!). He asks him to define “cognitive”. The rest of the courtroom responds with raised eyebrows and muttering: no one, not even the defense, likes this attorney. The kid is holding his own, though. It is revealed that he is currently in juvenile detention for marijuana possession and domestic assault. As far as this case goes, though, he knows nothing, saw nothing.

And then I had to leave. I remembered to get my key-chain back.


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