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Stay on Your Side

In each Maricopa County courtroom, the side of the gallery behind the defense table is for defendants and their families. The side behind the prosecution is for victims, law enforcement, and other people there for the prosecution. When I’ve been in trial, the sides either tend to be equal or they overwhelmingly favor the prosecution’s side. The policy doesn’t seem too ridiculous then, as it makes sense to keep a defendant’s family from sitting right next to the victim’s family. I can see how there might be some potential for trouble.

During a court’s regular law and motion calendar, where it’s nothing but scheduling conferences and release hearings, the policy creates a different result. There may be forty out of custody defendants on the calendar. At least a few are going to bring their families. People have to shuffle past each other when their cases are called, and the bailiff has to constantly stand up and tell people to scoot over or squeeze together so everyone will fit. The defense side of the gallery is often standing room only.

Victims and officers, on the other hand, usually don’t care about the next pretrial date. The prosecution side is therefore mostly empty, and when it is occupied, it’s typically just a few people scattered in each row with plenty of room to themselves. There’s probably enough space to lay down and sleep. When it does fill up, it’s usually because defendants and their families didn’t read the sign, and the bailiff quickly gets up and tells them they need to be on the other side. They slowly make their way from the spacious prosecution side over to the already over-crowded, noisy defense side.

It’s strange seeing a bunch of people cramming themselves into half of a tiny little courtroom while the other side remains open. The composition of each side makes it worse. One courtroom on one particular day stood out to me.

I remember leaving court after a simple hearing and passing through the gallery. I scanned the people on the prosecution side and saw a middle-aged couple dressed business casual with blond hair, blue eyes, neatly pressed clothing, and impeccably shined shoes. They held hands delicately and had little gold crosses on each of their lapels. In front of them sat an officer wearing a full uniform. He too had blond hair and blue eyes. He looked so innocent and clean cut he could have served as the spokesman for a Church of Latter Day Saints advertising campaign.

An old black man with messy, curly gray hair and an off-center braid that fell halfway down his back was also sitting on the prosecution side. He wore a shirt saying POWs will never be forgotten and olive drab cargo pants. As I walked by, the bailiff asked him if he was a victim. He said no, and the bailiff told him to move to the other side. He slowly rose to his feet, using both arms to balance, and picked up a cane from next to his seat. He began awkwardly making his way over to the other side.

Scanning the other side to see where he was going, I saw sixty or more people trying to force themselves into half as many seats. They were almost all black or Hispanic and ranged in age from teenagers to the very elderly. Two people in ragged, bent wheelchairs sat pushed up against the benches, keeping on their side of the room. One man with a cane was already leaned against the wall, looking uncomfortable. A number of people stood impatiently, waiting for someone to leave so they could get a seat. When the gate to the well or the door to the courtroom opened, they had to move to avoid being hit. At times, they’d just get pushed aside by the door.

Just as the two very different sides to that courtroom had very different experiences waiting for court, I thought to myself how the two sides of the courtroom would probably have the same different experiences during court.

The officer and the elderly couple would probably meet with a prosecutor who would call their case quickly and give them a little personal attention. No judge would put them on the spot, and they probably wouldn’t have to leave the comfort of their seats.

The defendants would get shuffled through their hearings. No one would listen to them if they had questions. They’d wait and wait for their public defenders, stand before an irritable judge, and have their hearings reset to another full calendar. Then, they’d just wait again on their side, all the while watching how the other half lives.

It struck me as both sad and fitting that the physical appearance of the courtroom so closely matched the treatment of the people on each side within the system itself.

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