Judge Gerstung: fair decisions, unfailing humor

April 07, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

One morning in Southeastern District Court, Judge Robert Gerstung decides to give this young guy a break: One year in jail, when he could have given him more.

For this, the kid cops an attitude. Striding away from the bench, he mutters a little too loudly, "A year? Hell, I can do a year standing on my head."

Gerstung overhears him and stops him in his tracks.

"Tell you what," he tells the offender, motioning him back to the bench. "I'm gonna give you one more year, to get you back on your feet again."

That was Gerstung in a nutshell. In 25 years on the bench, he had a reverence for the law combined with a twinkle in his eye. He understood what all the good District Court judges understand -- that legalisms must be tempered with common sense, with a reading of defendants' psyches and the idiosyncrasies of the streets -- and he learned to handle the numbing assembly line of cases by using his sense of humor as a defense mechanism, a pressure valve release to cope with the absurd, lumbering mechanism disguised as a system of justice.

When he died of a heart attack Monday, at 61, the city lost a savvy judge, a dedicated teacher, and a man who dealt with the pressures of District Court in rare and sometimes delightfully caustic ways.

Seeing a dozen disheveled inmates led into his courtroom one morning, in clanking leg irons, Gerstung declared, "Gentlemen, keep the noise down or we won't be serving chardonnay with lunch."

On another morning came a man charged with stealing a frozen burrito from an Eastern Avenue 7-Eleven. He'd popped the burrito into a microwave and then stuffed it down the front of his pants, which is how he was caught.

"Only Mae West had a line for this," Gerstung declared. "Is that a burrito in your pants, or are you just happy to see me?"

One morning at Southeastern, he went through 38 criminal cases in two hours. This made it a routine morning. Any human being facing such a daily conveyor belt of humanity gone bad needs a psychological outlet. Gerstung's was the verbal spitball. If he stung sometimes, it was just a man seeking release.

Police new on the job knew they could approach him for help on the subtleties of warrants and subpoenas. Law students knew they could turn to him for help as they approached their bar exams. And, along with the help, they knew there would be the humor.

One morning at Southeastern came a kid charged with getting high on paint fumes. He wore a pin-striped business suit as a belated gesture of playing by the rules. He wanted Gerstung to see that he'd gone clean and was no longer given to chemical indulgence.

But his story fell apart somewhat. Minutes before entering court, he was discovered on the police parking lot by a passing state's attorney, who saw him in his car with his face buried in a rag. The rag was soaked with a chemical intoxicant used as a solvent in paint.

"I could send you to jail," Gerstung said. "Although, knowing our system, they'll probably put you to work in the paint shop."

In Central District Court one morning came a man charged with malicious destruction of property. He had a shredded sports jacket and white stubble on his face. The charge: Heaving a brick through a picture window at Hamburger's men's store.

"Why Hamburger's?" asked Gerstung. "I mean, why not some other window, like a dirty book store?"

Voices, the man explained. Voices in his head told him to do it. Gerstung now understood he was dealing with a mental case. He accepted an insanity plea, ordered alcoholic rehabilitation, and offered a suggestion.

"You feel sober today?" he asked.

"Yes," the man said.

"When the voices tell you to do this again," he said, "you come right down here with the brick, and we can cut out the middle man, OK?"

In that moment, you could see the essence of the district courts, and of Gerstung: Let's talk like human beings. Forget the subtleties of the law books, which are for people with time on their hands. In the districts, the doors are always revolving too quickly, the streets keep coughing up all these wayward souls.

Gerstung knew the law, and he also understood people. He combined the knowledge masterfully. And he had a sense of humor to keep his sanity.

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