The night the lights flickered in the station

May 20, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

Mike Royko is on vacation. In his absence, we are reprinting some of his favorite columns. This column was originally published on May 3, 1978.

It was a routine case in traffic court, except the policeman testified that the motorist used filthy language.

Then, according to a spectator, the judge peered at the motorist and sternly asked: "Do you know what happens to people who foul-mouth policemen?"

The motorist shrugged.

"The police sometimes shoot them," the judge said. "And maybe more of them ought to be shot!"

We called Judge Arthur Ellis. "Yeah, I remember the case," the judge said. "I guess I shouldn't have said that. It slipped out."

I guess the judge just likes to enliven his courtroom.

I knew one judge who liked to wake everyone up in night traffic court by occasionally issuing a surprising ruling.

One night, a man showed up who obviously had been drinking. He was charged with running a red light.

"How do you plead?" the judge asked.

The man mumbled something. The judge told him to speak up.

The man insolently said: "You don't hear too good, judge. I plead guilty."

The judge asked: "Don't you know it isn't smart to plead guilty?"

The man, still insolent, said: "So what? You wouldn't give me a break anyway."

The man's wife started to say something to him, but the man told her to shut up.

The judge said: "All right. I shall enter a plea of guilty. And here is my sentence -- You shall be given into custody of the sheriff of this county, and on the 15th of the month, he shall cause a bolt of electricity to be passed through your body until you are dead, dead, dead."

The man staggered backward, his red eyes popped wide open and his jaw dropped. His wife gasped. Everyone in the courtroom sat up straight.

"Just for running a light?" the man cried.

"No. For being dumb enough to plead guilty. Ah, but on second thought, I'll just fine you $15 and costs. You are not worth frying. Go, and sin no more."

Which reminds me of the most sadistic, cruel, mean and funny thing I have ever heard done in a courtroom. An elderly policeman told me the story. He swears it is true.

One night, a big, drunken steel worker was brought into the South Chicago police station. He had been arrested for throwing several of his drinking companions through the window of a neighborhood tavern.

He apparently had anarchistic tendencies because he bellowed at the room full of cops: "When we haf revolution, we going to take all you red-nose Irish bastards and shoot you by wall."

The desk sergeant, who wasn't too sober himself, said: "Book this man on disorderly conduct and high treason."

They took the steel worker upstairs to the courtroom. A detective was pretending to be the judge. Another became the prosecutor. Others became clerks, bailiffs and the public defender. Several more sat in the jury box. A few winos were brought from the lockup to sit in the spectators' seats.

The trial was held, evidence presented, and the "judge" said: "I find you not guilty of disorderly conduct. But I find you guilty of high treason. I sentence you to be executed by means of electrocution as quickly as the sentence can be carried out."

They rushed the dumbfounded man out of the courtroom and to the lockup, where he was asked what he wanted for his last meal. Somebody ran out to an all-night diner and got a hamburger with fries for him.

As he ate, the lights in the cells blinked on and off several times. "What's that?" he yelled.

"We are testing the electric chair," he was told.

When he finished his meal, they led him into the squad room, where they had rigged a large chair with wires. A detective had turned his collar around, so he looked like a clergyman. He loudly prayed over the steel worker, who began weeping.

They strapped him into the chair, and atop his head they placed a bowl-like gadget from a lamp.

"Be brave, my son," the clergyman-detective intoned. "You will meet your maker any minute now." The steel worker began wailing.

At that moment, the door burst open and a cop rushed in, shouting: "Stop the execution! The governor has given him a reprieve!"

The next morning, he was taken before a real judge on the brawling charge. He immediately began babbling: "Last night I was in the electric chair . . . the governor saved me . . . high treason."

He was sent to the state hospital to be examined. When he got out, he resumed drinking in the neighborhood tavern. But from then on, he always went home after two beers.

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