If you want courtroom drama, forget "Plea Day."
No eloquent speeches, no gripping testimony, no sharp legal maneuvering. Not on Plea Day, when Anne Arundel County's criminal justice system attempts to put into practice a fledgling plan to expedite a few cases and clear a few jail cells for more deserving occupants.
In action, this is mundane, not glamorous. Is this the right file? Why is the defendant's name on the jail official's list for Monday's Plea Day if he is on the docket for Tuesday? Has the defendant beenbrought over from the detention center?
These questions came Monday on the third Circuit Court Plea Day -- the first since county prosecutors, public defenders and jail officials refined the program by establishing a "time line" for selecting cases and working out plea bargains.
The idea seems simple enough: identify defendants being held in lieu of bail on relatively minor charges, almost always involving property crimes, and get their cases disposed of through guilty pleas.
In many cases -- in fact, in nearly all Plea Day cases in District Court -- the plea bargain gives the defendant credit for time served while awaiting trial. The balance of any sentence is suspended.
Without the expedited hearings, says Alan R. Friedman, public defender for the district including Anne Arundel County, some defendantsserve more time awaiting trial than they would have to serve if convicted. A person can be locked up for two or three months awaiting trial on a shoplifting charge and come to court to see a co-defendant who had been free on bond pending trial be sentenced to only a month injail.
Of course, not everything about Plea Day is mundane. Take the case -- or cases -- of Alvin Dewalt Wallace. The 27-year-old Glen Burnie man was charged with selling $40 worth of crack to an undercover police detective; he'd been locked up since September. His prior record was relatively minor, including only convictions for battery and resisting arrest.
When his case was called Monday in county Circuit Court, Wallace pleaded guilty to selling crack and was sentenced to a year in jail -- but the balance of the sentence beyond the time he'd served awaiting trial was suspended.
Wallace has benefited inat least one way from his jail stay. Seems he had been charged with a robbery, but the victim in that case, Stuart Edward Bates, was alsolocked up; seeing Wallace convinced Bates that police had charged the wrong man.
When Bates was brought to court Monday as a Plea Day defendant, he talked to a prosecutor, who then dismissed the robbery charge against Wallace.
Wallace could have been free to go and thedetention center population reduced by one. But he is being held pending trial on a misdemeanor theft charge later this month in DistrictCourt.
I realize that Christmas is a busy time of year; a time when we all down that extra cup of coffee and venture bravely out to the malls and shopping centers to wade through the pulsing throngs, snatching up the last of our Christmas gifts.
I have partaken of that cup of tea or java -- a ceremonial gesture reminiscent of Japanese pilots in World War II, preparing themselves spiritually before leaping into kamikaze fighters, death and oblivion.
My vehicle is a Nissan Sentra, but the effect is the same. I feel a kinship with warriors of past, jumping into my car and bracing for the journey to the mall. Teeth clenched, I pull out into traffic on Ritchie Highway and scan the horizon for signs of trouble. I invariably find some.
The Christmas season does something to people. Perhaps it's an as-yet undiagnosed hypnotic effect of the inordinate numbers of Christmas lights in malls, or the incessant drone of seasonal music leading to sensory overload and a type of sinister hypnosis. We'll probably see it used as a defense for the driver responsible for some violent traffic disaster. They'll call it Santa Syndrome.
Whatever it is, it gnaws on the psyche of motorists until their darkest, most malevolent side emerges. People change. They drive faster, they become impatient and sometimes perform stunts of unbelievable stupidity.
Such was the case yesterday morning, when I encountered a number of Santa Syndrome-afflicted drivers.
I was on my way back from Annapolisto the home offices of The Anne Arundel County Sun in Pasadena. Crossing the Severn River Bridge on U.S. 50, I could see the tension in the faces of the drivers that whizzed around my tiny Sentra. They had to be somewhere -- NOW!
My little Nissan's four-cylinder strained to stay at 60 mph as I exited onto Route 2 North (the speed limit there is 50 mph). Not fast enough. One by one, the drivers behind me swerved into the other lane to pass, glaring menacingly at me as their cars shot up the highway into the distance.
Climbing the next hill,I saw the flashing fire station signal just be
low Arnold Road change to red, and I slowed to stop. Big mistake.