Assailant's story stops squirmers in the courtroom


August 24, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

"You, I beg,

hold back your scorn.

For man needs help

from every creature born."

-- Bertolt Brecht

After all the bad things had been said, Mary, the woman in the cheap blue dress, swore she'd tell the truth. She slid into the witness chair and tugged on her hem.

The prosecutor had just finished reading a statement of facts about Mary's behavior on the night of July 24 at her rowhouse on South Pulaski. Not a pretty picture.

This Mary, stocky and round-faced, had allegedly attacked a man named Smith with a baseball bat. When cops came to her door, she screamed and tried to punch one of them. She was "very violent," the prosecutor said, reading from the arrest report. As two cops moved in with handcuffs, Mary bit both on the hands, shouting that she had AIDS.

What a mess. Typical District Court case -- another screaming crazy in the night, another loser brought to the bar, another petty crime to clutter the courts and soon, one assumed, another ward the Division of Correction. Because Mary's victims were cops, the prosecutor was recommending a jail term.

Before sentencing, Mary's public defender, a young man in a pinstriped suit, asked the judge to consider mitigating factors.

Mary's was a long story.

They almost always are in District Court, and so cops and others in the courtroom squirm impatiently, or they sneer and chuckle at the idea there might be another side to a story -- especially one involving an assault on police officers.

So Mary sat in the witness stand, just below Judge Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt. A group of her friends, all women, formed a small cluster in the courtroom gallery.

The public defender asked Mary about this Smith fellow, whom she was accused of attacking with a baseball bat that night in July.

Smith was infatuated with Mary.

"See," she said, her voice quivering, "my husband died January 6, 1993, and [Smith] was constantly running after me after that."

She'd met this Smith at Alcoholics Anonymous.

"See," Mary said, "I was sexually abused since I was 9 years old and I was just starting to get help, therapy for it."

Here the courtroom fell sharply silent. Squirmers stopped squirming.

"I'm still in therapy for it. . . . When men get close to me I have a tendency to get frightened. I have no control over what happens when they touch me."

Her expression was painful, grim. Often, when they hear stories like this, any cops in court shake their heads, or they look at each other with heard-it-before grins. That didn't happen when Mary spoke. The room was silent. No one moved.

"I was groggy that night, I was under medication," Mary said. "I take quite a few medicines. I was asleep when [Smith] started banging on my door. I understand he banged for 20 minutes."

Smith had banged on her door quite often, as a matter of fact. He wouldn't leave her alone.

"He wanted sex," she said. "I didn't want no relationship with him and I didn't want no intimate relationship with him. . . . I have a depression problem, and I have a sexual abuse problem."

What about the night of July 24?

She'd exploded, attacked two cops. And that bit about AIDS. It wasn't true. But the two cops had to get tests and, while they were waiting for the results, they had suffered terrific mental distress.

One of the cops was in the courtroom. He sat, in uniform, about 20 feet from Mary. Rinehardt asked if the cop knew how much the AIDS tests had cost the city. He said he didn't, but he could find out. The judge postponed sentencing until Sept. 7.

"I'm 40," Mary said when asked her age. But she appeared a lot older, and hard around the edges.

Laundromat, I'm an assistant manager," Mary told the judge when asked if she had a job. "See, I'm just starting to get out again, to be around people again. I wouldn't come out my house . . . "

And here her voice quivered again.

". . . You know, since my husband died. I'm just starting to be around people again."

No one in the courtroom moved, not a word whispered. Mary looked at her hands.

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