The Life and Grimes of a Courthouse

The King County Courthouse is society's rain gutter, where all our crimes and petty conflicts are finally, inevitably swept.

It's Monday morning at the King County Courthouse. Up on the ninth floor, in a courtroom at the far end of the east hallway, a 7-year-old girl clutching a stuffed alligator is on the witness stand. A young prosecutor with a neatly cropped blond goatee is bent solicitously at the waist, his hands resting on a ledge in front of her. "You don't like your uncle Marvin much, do you?" he asks. She says no. "Why is that? Did Uncle Marvin do anything to you?" After a pause, he asks her if something happened in the laundry room one time, and she says yes. She says that Uncle Marvin touched her privates.

The courtroom is nearly empty and silent except for the child's voice. Uncle Marvin sits at the defendant's table. He is a scary-looking 19-year-old with a chiseled face. His head is closely shaved, save for a wave of long hair dyed gold and flipped back from the front, covering the top of his head.

When the little girl has finished telling the judge what happened, she is cross-examined by Marvin's attorney, who proceeds gently but with a trace of intimidation. He asks about other reasons she doesn't like Marvin—like the time he pinched her brother and hit her mother. "Was that a 'yes'?" he demands when she responds inaudibly.

As the morning passes, I learn that there are actually two little girls involved in the case—one who says Marvin touched her, and her 5-year-old sister, who says that he urinated in her mouth. There were no witnesses and no physical evidence. The girls said nothing about the abuse until more than a year later, when—according to their mother—one of the girls recoiled from her in the bath.

But there was bad blood between Marvin and his half-sister (the girls' mother) before the alleged events ever took place. Marvin had broken her nose once in a fight. Marvin's lawyer intimates that the charges have been trumped up by the young mother, a Puerto Rican woman in her early twenties, as a way of wreaking revenge.

So it goes, on this and every Monday morning at the King County Courthouse, where the most painful and lurid human dramas are on public display, open to anyone who wants to come in and watch.

Push open any courtroom door and you'll find a tale of struggle and bitterness, resentment and redress. In one room, a longshoreman from Bothell is telling the hard-luck story of his frustrated efforts to provide for his family while his ex-wife, aiming to extract more money, listens from the plaintiff's table. In another, a construction worker who took a terrible, life-altering fall while building NikeTown is imploring a jury to make the contractor pay him for his pain. Here, the family of a dead man is suing his Kirkland doctor for not doing the blood test that might have saved his life. In other rooms, behind other doors, prosecutors are bearing down on drug traffickers, murderers, rapists, and the wrongly accused. And down in the less glamorous trenches of misdemeanor court, a steady parade of chronic alcoholics, batterers and small-time thieves are being processed, fined, locked up, and packed off for counseling in what seems an infinite loop of futility. The courthouse is society's rain gutter, where all our collective failures are finally, inevitably, swept.

In the Courthouse, couples are lovingly marrying and hatefully divorcing just steps away from one another; parents are adopting a child or having one taken away; the unregenerate are being hauled off to jail, the rehabilitated being restored to freedom. People who elsewhere would cross the street to avoid one another are here pressed together. From the King County Council members (whose swank chambers are in a penthouse on the Court-house's 10th floor) and the slick petitioners who lobby them, to the most angry, destitute, and marginalized street hoods, to the masses of undifferentiated folks from all corners of the county reporting for jury duty... all crowd into the same hallways and elevators in a relentless, uneasy flow of human traffic.

The courthouse has a small cadre of regulars—mostly retirees—for whom spectating is a daily habit. They can often be found seated in the back rows at one of the high-profile trials, knitting or doing crossword puzzles during the slow parts, or chatting with cops at the break. On my Monday visit, I come upon a trio of old Boeing guys in their hooded sweatshirts, consulting the daily court calendar as if it were a Bumbershoot program. Two other spectators are giving a defense attorney their two-thumbs-up review of her previous afternoon's performance ("It was a great show!"). She smiles graciously at the compliment.

But of course even the sexy trials are often unbearably tedious. At one murder trial I make the mistake of entering, the defense attorney is engaged in a kind of Chinese water-torture examination, walking a police officer through the interminable transcript of an audiotape, asking him to note every spot where the transcript reads, "Tape skips." ("And on page 16, after 'What's in the car?' can you read what it says?" "'Tape skips.'" "And then on page 17... ") Twenty minutes later, when I leave, this is still going on.

These real courtrooms lack the splendor and glamour of their TV-show versions. In most, empty boxes and other debris are piled up along the walls. Isolated, forlorn pieces of art hang at the center of big, blank walls. The identical raincoats of a half-dozen attorneys hang on cheap coatracks.

Most of the hearing rooms are empty of everyone except the direct participants and perhaps a handful of their friends or relatives. Strangers can be looked on with some suspicion. Marvin, for example, turns to glower at me a couple of times and seems to inquire of his attorney as to who I am. At one point, the courthouse reporter from TheSeattle Times strides in, listens for a short time, then makes an unapologetic exit as the shocking whispers from the little girl continue. He knows enough not to be taken in by the drama, which—as I soon figure out—isn't even the "real" trial. It is only a dress rehearsal, a "trial run" in front of the judge to determine whether the little girls' testimonies will be admissible and can be heard again by the jury.

As the youngest of the girls finishes up, she is escorted out of the courtroom to where her mother and sister are waiting in the hallway. Before the door closes, I hear the prosecutor say, "Good job!" and there are smiles and squeals of satisfaction. It's the typical courthouse scenario: human tragedy being reduced to legal stratagem, the object being not to seek out the truth but to win.

One day in November 1995, a poorly welded guard rail at the NikeTown construction site gave way, and a 42-year-old construction worker fell head-first into an excavation site. He sued the contractor for negligence; unlike the vast majority of such cases, this one has now come all the way to trial.

Though the man has returned to work, he says he can't do his job as well and is having to work under people he trained. The man's wife tearfully testifies that her husband can no longer focus or concentrate, is unmotivated, indecisive. "Has your marriage and relationship changed?" her husband's attorney asks. "We don't talk like we did," she says, "he's quick to anger." "What about your physical relationship with your husband? Has that changed?" After a long pause, she says, "He's tired all the time." The defense attorneys don't bother cross-examining her.

The defense team is headed by a corporate smoothie whose interrogation of the plaintiff's medical experts mainly takes the form of statements designed to instill doubt. "Would you agree with me that... " "To state it another way... isn't that right?" He intimates that the man's current symptoms are psychological rather than organic. And he suggests that a hard hat would have protected him in a fall. As a test, he says, his team sent someone in a hard hat head-first into a pool, and the hat was still in place when he hit the water. In response, the plaintiff's attorney gets a safety expert to say that hard hats are designed to protect you against objects falling from above, not from you landing on your own head.

Outside the courtroom, the opposing attorneys are quite chummy, conferring amiably, shedding the steely hostility maintained in front of the jury. (Among themselves, lawyers jauntily refer to their clients as "my guy" and "your guy.") And eventually the two come to terms. A week from now, I'll return to the same courtroom and find it suddenly full of strangers: Halfway through the trial, the contractor settled.

With Marvin, meanwhile, there's still been no official determination of truth: the mostly male jury deadlocked. During deliberations, Marvin fled, and there's now a warrant out for his arrest. The prosecutor says he hasn't decided whether to retry the case.

Up the hill from the Courthouse, and connected to it by a skybridge, is the County Jail. Some 50 jail guards spend the day shuttling defendants from a holding pen on the 12th floor of the Courthouse back and forth to the hearing rooms. You can spot the really dangerous criminals because they have more than one guard and both their feet and hands are bound. So as not to prejudice jurors, all cuffs and chains are removed before the jury enters the courtroom, and are not reapplied until the jury has filed back out.

The courtrooms are the scene of staged drama, the hallways, the place for anguished backstage consultation, sotto voce strategizing, and a lot of shooting the shit to blow off steam. The hallway benches, where witnesses wait to be called, are the courthouse theater's greenroom, charged with nervous excitement. Outside the courtroom where a big jewelry heist trial is just getting under way, the prosecutor—who looks (as do all the courthouse prosecutors, male and female) like a young Richard Nixon—is cheerily stage-managing during the brief morning break. He greets his witnesses and pumps them up: "OK, Ron, you're on first. Jim will go next, then we'll take Simon."

Once the trial restarts, everyone but the witnesses returns to the room, and the corridor becomes lonely and quiet. Down another hallway, a group of high-school kids, black and white, are crashed out on the benches as if they are in someone's rec room. I ask one of the girls what the guy inside is accused of. Gesturing toward the kid sprawled out on the bench across from her, she says, without interest, "Pointing a gun at his head."

District Court on the third floor, where misdemeanors are handled, is a world away from the hushed, ceremonial atmosphere of the big felony trials upstairs on floors 7 through 9. District Court is like an open-air justice market, with pockets of conversation all over the courtroom, a half-dozen attorneys roaming around, and a crush of small-time defendants sitting and sometimes snoozing on the rows of benches, awaiting their few minutes before the judge. These are average Joes, occasional inmates, lifelong petty criminals hauled up on charges of DUI, unsafe lane changes, trying to cash a check they stole from Wendy's, failing to show up for court-ordered AA meetings, and on and on.

Since virtually no one arrives here with a private attorney, a battery of public defenders fan through the court, calling out names. The PDs will provide a kind of instant representation for clients they generally have never met and whose cases they may know nothing about until today. They huddle with them in the jury box or just outside the courtroom, laying out their options, based on what the state is demanding: plead to a lesser charge, try for a bench trial, ask for a deferred sentence, etc. A lone prosecutor stands at the table in front of the judge calling case after case, sometimes even conducting a quickie trial with a few minutes of testimony.

It's fast-forward justice, conducted, on the day I'm there, by a pro tem (or substitute) judge who is godlike in her patience, efficiency, and the respect and concern she shows for the many-time losers before her. Most everyone is packed off to substance abuse treatment, "anger management" courses, and the like, in a daylong procession broken only by lunch.

The judges here in District Court do not preside loftily over a weeks-long trial the way their counterparts do up in Superior Court. The District Court judges are hurrying every moment of the frantic proceedings along, and directly addressing every defendant, whose failures and relapses they sometimes seem to take personally. Watching these elected officials work, and seeing the impact their decisions have on the lives of so many ordinary citizens, I'm appalled at myself for never having bothered to vote for a judge.

One day down in District Court there is a string of traffic-accident cases. The judge and prosecutor are grilling people about what they saw, when they saw it, how they responded, what exactly the weather was like, and the distance separating them from the car in front and the car behind. I drive home that night imagining the possibility that some day months from now I too might be answerable for everything I'm doing at this moment; might be obliged—might even desperately need—to recall some instant of this drive home, or some other part of my day, in minutest detail, for the sake of my own livelihood or reputation.

There are many thousands of people in King County under court order to stay away from someone else. Upward of 10,000 protection orders were issued in the Courthouse last year, most arising out of domestic violence, some for other kinds of harassment. One day in District Court, a judge was hearing petitions for emergency orders, which are issued when there's imminent danger.

"How long has she been 'in your face'?" the judge inquires, reading from the papers in front of her. A woman is being accosted by the former girlfriend of her former boyfriend. The judge doesn't deem the situation an emergency, so the order is withheld for two weeks until both parties can make their case at a hearing. Next, a wiry Somali man in his forties with a limited knowledge of English says his girlfriend has threatened to kill him. (She made the same threat once before, he tells me. But then they got back together.) A mail carrier who's worked the same neighborhood for 15 years is being hounded by a crazy-sounding man on his route who wants every piece of mail certified. An elderly Japanese couple who speak barely enough English to swear to tell the whole truth want an order against their adult son, who is living with them. The judge, who speaks only legalese, tells the incomprehending couple that she has "no standing" to hear this sort of matter (if you want to exclude someone from your residence, the matter has to be heard in Superior Court). Later I see the sad parents receiving patient, doting assistance from a clerk up on the sixth floor, where the protection order paperwork is handled.

District Court is also the place for changing your name. It costs you $57 and you have to tell a judge why (and swear that you're not trying to elude creditors), but you needn't be too specific. One young man with waist-length brown hair is adopting a rather exotic-sounding name "for professional purposes," he says. A Vietnamese man wants something easier to pronounce. An elderly lady says she wants to be buried with her maiden name.

A suite of rooms on the second floor is designated for ex parte, or one-side-only, hearings. It's the home of the instant divorce. Here you'll find an unusual number of well-dressed, professional-looking women sitting by themselves with determined expressions. Each is waiting for her name to be called, at which point she'll approach the commissioner, inform him or her that yes, her marriage is irretrievably broken, and walk out of the room a single woman. Nothing in Ex Parte is supposed to take more than 10 minutes, and finalizing divorce usually takes less than that. "They have a nice little do-it-yourself kit," one of the waiting women informs me. The process isn't quite instant: Ninety days must have passed from the time you filed for divorce, and the split has to be uncontested, with an agreed-upon plan for child care and child support.

Ex Parte is also where you make adoptions official. On the afternoon I am there, a beatific-looking, ultrasuburban white family from Pierce County—mom, dad, and three daughters—has come down to Seattle to mark the adoption of their new black baby boy, who is done up in a corduroy vest and little blue bow tie.

By far the saddest place in the Courthouse is Family Court on Floor 2. Here, in a crowded, sterile courtroom lit a sickly fluorescent white, embittered former couples stand before an overburdened judge and lay out their harsh disputes and failures. A murder victim's family can more easily meet the eyes of their murderer than the couples in this room can look at each other. They stand in front of the judge, staring straight ahead, barely containing their hostility and pain while they bicker over who sent what checks and has what receipts, who did or did not buy the children a birthday present, who is badmouthing the other in front of the children or using the children to convey messages. Many of the couples have restraining orders against each other.

Unlike the criminals upstairs, who often have a certain bravura to them, and the victims who bear their suffering heroically, most of the people in Family Court look utterly demoralized (save for a few crisply tailored divorcees with cell phones and a stickin'-it-to-'em air). The raw desperation is almost unbearable to watch. Even the staffers in Family Court seem uniquely grumpy and curt. The commissioner is dour, unsmiling, and barely looks up from the sea of papers that confront her on her desk as she tries to locate the facts amid the invectives.

Family Court has double the security of the rest of the Courthouse. When you enter the Courthouse from the street, you pass through a metal detector and your bags are X-rayed. But when you come to Family Court you are searched again, more thoroughly this time. A pocket knife in my backpack made it through the main entrance but was confiscated here. (Small knives are allowed in the Courthouse at large.) Up in Superior Court, there are murderers, rapists, their friends and enemies. But Family Court is the setting for the most volatile emotions and most violent incidents. This is where Timothy Blackwell shot his pregnant Filipino mail-order wife three years ago, the event that first led the Courthouse to introduce its security checks.

I spend my last morning at the Courthouse in Family Court. Two interchangeable divorce lawyers are flanked by a suburban husband and wife who have spent well beyond their means and are now arguing over who gets the Land Cruiser, who siphoned money out of a joint bank account, who left whose clothes in garbage bags in the front hallway, who is acting in bad faith, and who is to blame for everything. Finally, as noon approaches, I escape and wander over to a couple of out-of-the-way Superior Court rooms on the second floor. Waiting outside one of them is a young man named Alfred, with short, tight dreadlocks. He tells me he's about to get married, and I ask if I can watch.

His bride arrives, along with their two witnesses—his older brother and her older sister—all of them Jamaican, with skin a beautiful, deep chocolate brown. They're laughing and teasing each other and dressed for a day in town.

In a few minutes, the courtroom doors open, and the defendant in a drug trial comes shuffling out. He is an older black man with his wrists chained instead of cuffed because he walks with a cane. He is followed by his jailhouse escort and his grim-faced attorney. The doors close behind them, then, after awhile, they open again, and the bailiff beckons Alfred's group inside.

It is one of the nicer, newer courtrooms, hung with attractive African art. Alfred hands over to the bailiff the $75 cash that the judge requires for his services. This is moonlighting work for the judges: You call and arrange an appointment with them directly and they each set their own rates. The judge appears and conducts a short ceremony. There are no rings. The judge reads, charmingly and terribly, a poem about love by a Lebanese poet.

Afterwards, seeing that the family has brought no camera, the judge suggests they go pick up one of those disposables at the drugstore to record the day. They pleasantly accept and ignore his advice. Alfred is headed off to work. His new family departs the Courthouse, and so do I.

 
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