Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do we all need courthouse crash course?

I recall a moment some two decades ago when I covered the Cook County Criminal Courts building for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. The “story” for the day involved a man who had raped and brutally-beaten a young woman.
It's really not that mysterious a place

He was promptly arrested, and on this particular day he was brought to 26th and California for his first court appearance in this case.

I WAS SITTING in the courtroom so I could see just what kind of bond the judge would set in the case. As it turned out, I sat within earshot of two older women – whom it seems were related to the young woman who was the crime victim.

I had to hold back a chuckle when I overheard one of the women tell someone else, “There’s going to be a trial today.”

There were dozens of trials that took place in the Criminal Courts building that day, but not for this case. It was just a bond hearing; the first step in a legal process that may seem excruciatingly slow to some people but must be followed to the letter to ensure that our judicial system produces verdicts that can stand up to review on appeal.

In fact, if I recall, that particular case took about a year-and-a-half to get resolved. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a prison sentence with a few years knocked off of what it could have been.

I WONDER HOW disappointed and confused those women (whom I have never seen or heard from again in my life) were with what happened that day.

Because my guess is that it is remarkably similar to the confusion/dismay/disgust that was being expressed Tuesday morning with regards to the case of the former Penn State University assistant coach who now faces criminal charges that say he forced himself sexually on 10 young men.
SANDUSKY: Following the process

Tuesday was the day in Centre County, Penn., court that was supposed to be the preliminary hearing.  Yet what wound up happening was that Jerry Sandusky made a brief court appearance and waived his “right” to such a hearing.

So Tuesday was just a procedural point that lasted just a couple of minutes.

TO LISTEN TO the outrage that was being expressed on many of the cable television news reports I saw (many of which were broadcasting the event LIVE), there was massive disappointment.

Apparently, some people were expecting the legal equivalent of a head on a pike. Instead, they got a bit of legalese that – in the long-run – doesn’t mean much.

Perhaps it is evidence that I have hung around too many courtrooms as a reporter-type person during the past 24 years. But it always amazes me how mysterious the whole legal procedure is to people.

It’s no wonder that real criminals who come into contact with the system can better figure out their options than the so-called typical person who happens to stumble into the system.

FOR THE RECORD, the point of a “preliminary hearing” is that prosecutors are supposed to present in public the types of “evidence” they say they will have to use against the criminal defendant – should the case be allowed to proceed to trial.

In short, it is about requiring prosecutors to “put up or shut up,” so to speak, and justify why this person is suspected of a crime and why his arrest and criminal charges are warranted.

A judge, in theory, has the ability to rule that the evidence put forth is weak and that the person should never have been charged and dismiss the whole case.

But that usually doesn’t happen. Judges usually wind up ruling that the arrest and charges are justified, and that the case can proceed. In fact in Cook County, prosecutors usually announce that they superseded the need for a preliminary hearing by getting a grand jury to indict the defendant.

WHICH MEANS THAT Sandusky, with advice from his attorneys, likely decided it wasn’t really worth bringing all this up right now – particularly since the degree to which prosecutors have to prove anything (none of that “beyond a reasonable doubt” rhetoric at this point in the process) is low.

They just have to show that someone made a complaint, and that they have no reason to believe these young men are lying about what they say happened to them.

Instead, it was being billed as some sort of coverup. Sandusky and his people denied “the people” a chance to hear from the accusers. They did NOT get their chance to tell their stories.

Heck, they lost their chance to begin the process of emotional recovery from their ordeals.


That point, if it ever comes, will occur during an actual trial – which also is where we get into the details to a degree that we will truly be able to comprehend what really happened between Sandusky and these young men.

It may well turn out to be such a sordid tale that many of us won’t really want to hear it. Perhaps Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” was correct in screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!”

And the fact that we’re going to have to follow a detailed, complex process to get to those details is a good thing. It is going to be what justifies whatever verdict and/or punishment is ultimately handed down.


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