Justice sees the light at city courthouse

Renovation: The once-dim Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse shines brightly, thanks to new fixtures, paint and flooring.

March 17, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Justice is not as blind as it used to be in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse.

The lobby was so dark that sheriff's deputies lashed a desk lamp atop the metal detector so that they could see when they checked people's bags for weapons.

The dingy walls and brown floors made the hallways so dim that Brenda Keller, a pretrial case agent, used to whip off her glasses, thinking the tinted lenses were making it hard to see.

Now, fresh paint, new sand-colored floors and more lights have brightened the halls of justice. The courthouse grew even brighter this week as workers replaced 100 of the 500 bulbs in the public corridors with brighter ones.

In the small marble lobby off North Calvert Street, 16 new light fixtures, each holding three bulbs, were installed last month.

"We had [an assistant] state's attorney come down here and say, `I've worked here 20 years, and this is the first time they've turned the lights on,'" said sheriff's Deputy Lou Trimper, standing at his lobby post. "And I said, `No, there were no lights.'

"On a scale of 1 to 10," Trimper said, the lighting has improved "from about 1 to about a 20."

The dark, gloomy corridors at times seemed to befit a courthouse where scores of defendants are hauled each day through the halls and into courtrooms in leg irons and handcuffs.

But employees are thrilled that things are brightening.

"It has like a little ray of sun to it now. It does help your attitude," said Pat Henry, a coordinator in the criminal assignment office who shepherds dozens of files a day to courtrooms.

The painting and lighting changes are an effort to spruce up the aging courthouse. For years, the courthouse has been falling into decay, with pigeon waste piling up on windows sills and vents blowing air that is alternately icy cold and stiflingly hot.

Multimillion-dollar renovations are planned, but Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller decided to use about $700,000 from a state grant and city funds to make the building more presentable.

"We walked through it the other day, and it does have a different feel to it," Heller said. "I think the appearance of the courthouse is very important, not only for the comfort that it gives the public and the employees, but to convey a message of dignity and respect for the law."

She and the Court Administrator Larry D. Reiner routinely make the rounds at the courthouse, to see whether bulbs are burned out, bathrooms are clean or air vents are spewing black soot. And they pressure city maintenance crews to keep the building broom-clean - and fire off letters if they are not.

"It's well overdue," said Keller, the pretrial case agent, as she looked down the fifth-floor hallway. She said she used be afraid to turn the corner at the end of the hall when she took defendants to the laboratory for urine testing. "It gets so dark. Anything could happen," she said.

In the lobby, people no longer trip on the stairs because their eyes can't adjust to the darkness quickly enough after being outside, the deputies say.

"It was like you were walking into a dungeon," said sheriff's Deputy Bill Lupus.

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