Justice is served: Let freedom ring

Dan Rodricks

December 11, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Red sweater! The boy in the red sweater! He's doing a dance. He's doing Arsenio! He's up in the aisle in the gallery of Eastside District Court, face in a mock-cringe, long arms flapping, the stylishly-oversized cardigan flopping, his bony fingers cradling his head, then covering his eyes, then clutching his chest. If it were allowed in court, the boy would scream: Why me, Lord?

Do you be-lieve this?

When court started at 9 a.m., the boy in the red sweater was nothing but a boy in a red sweater. He was sitting seven rows from the front of the crowded courtroom, listening to testimony.

But now, 35 minutes into the morning docket, a girl is pointing a finger at him. And she's the second girl to do so. Twice the red sweater has been picked out of a room full of teen-age boys in leather and denim. Twice he has been identified as the one who tried to rob three girls on Oct. 25 in East Baltimore. By now, all the young victims have been to court, and two of them have pointed the finger at the boy in the red sweater.

And he's not even the defendant!

So the red sweater is on his feet, flailing his arms, hailing the heavens. Why me, Lord? And all about him, other boys are giggling. The prosecutor is confused. The woman sitting next to me whispers: "Thank you, Jesus. Praise you, Jesus."

What we had here, ladies and gentlemen, was an episode of courtroom identification.

The three girls, victims of an attempted robbery, were brought before Judge Martin A. Kircher, Courtroom 3 of the District Court building on North Avenue. They were escorted by their fathers into the crowded room, one at a time, and asked by the prosecutor to point to the young man who tried to rob them. The defendant was seated somewhere in the room.

I have seen this done before. The courtroom gallery becomes one large lineup, and victims are asked to point out, if they can, their attackers. Years ago, in the old Southern District on Ostend Street, I watched the victim of a purse-snatching try to locate the chump who had victimized her. It turned out that I had been sitting next to him the whole time. The man the woman selected from the gallery happened to be the defendant, too, which made the prosecutors sigh with relief.

The opposite happened yesterday in Eastside District. Two of the girls picked the boy in the red sweater as their assailant, and the third girl picked a guy in blue leather. Of course, neither was the defendant. That's what made things so confusing.

But, confusing as it might have been, you could take what happened as a sign of life for individual rights. With the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights approaching, we went to the lowest criminal court we could find. If, 200 years later, we could see dogged commitment to the fundamental principles of the Bill of Rights in District Court, triage unit of the criminal justice system, then the light of civil rights must shine brightly throughout the land.

Or so I would like to believe.

It's not always possible to believe this. The high concepts of the Bill of Rights sometimes seem unreachable in the chronically overcrowded, overworked, understaffed District Court, where prosecutors and public defenders alike become jaded under the day-to-day grind of human disorder, where judges become glaze-eyed bureaucrats. The docket is a roster of nobodies with society's worst problems. At times, the whole thing looks like anarchy.

And yet, yesterday morning in Eastside District Court, I heard the woman next to me say: "Thank you, Jesus."

She was related to the defendant in the attempted-robbery case, and she praised the Lord each time one of the three girls pointed a finger at someone other than him. The family of the accused had shouted vehement protests since his arrest. The defendant, who has no criminal record, insisted that he was simply riding his bicycle through the neighborhood where the crime took place, that he had been grabbed by police and identified on the street by the three girls. "This was a case of mistaken identity from the start," the woman next to me said.

That's why all the fuss, with the elaborate attempt to have the victims independently identify their attacker in the crowded courtroom gallery. On a sleepy Tuesday morning, way down in the lowest ranks of the criminal justice system, on the docket of nobodies, somebody was trying to make sure an innocent kid didn't go to jail. I'll take that as tribute to the Bill of Rights.

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