A day in life of city's public defenders

September 29, 2001|By Gregory Kane

IF YOU WALKED into Courtroom 4 of the District Courton Wabash Avenue yesterday, you likely heard two public defenders chatting about tomorrow's Ravens game.

One wondered if the defending Super Bowl champs will be able to take the Denver Broncos. The other said the Ravens aren't playing well these days. The talk shifted to the travails of being public defenders. A third lawyer had come in by this time. She told the other two of a remark she had heard a judge make earlier.

"He asked the defendant, `Are you going to get a lawyer or a public defender'?" the woman said.

"As if there's a difference," the first public defender said.

"I passed the bar exam, too," the other public defender chimed in. "And I've got the scars to prove it!"

That afternoon, the three lawyers were in Judge Jamey H. Weitzman's courtroom to represent defendants getting bail reviews. Weitzman would be in shortly to advise defendants of their rights, urge them to get a lawyer and then tell them if their bail would be raised, lowered or remain the same.

But for now, the atmosphere was relaxed, chatty. There were about eight or nine concerned citizens in the room, on hand to support family members up for bail review. Talk soon turned to the events of Sept. 11, and the recent offer of the Taliban junta in Afghanistan to have the Rev. Jesse Jackson head up a peace delegation.

"I don't think he should go," an elderly African-American woman, Lucinda Gilot, said. "[The Taliban] should know what [Jackson's] up against right here with that girl and that baby," she said, referring to Jackson's out-of-wedlock paternity of a daughter with a former research consultant. "He done messed up with us. He done cooked his goose."

Jackson would do well to heed her advice. Stay your butt home, Jesse. You've got diapers to change.

Soon Weitzman entered and started the bail review ball rolling. She talked to the inmates via a television camera piped into the Central Booking and Intake Center. She called out each name, told each guy - all the defendants were men - what he was charged with and then waited for the pretrial release representative to tell her the man's employment record, criminal history and education level.

There was an assault case here, a drug possession case there. Some were in for theft. The pre-trial release rep recommended leaving the bail alone in most cases. In some, the public defenders urged Weitzman to lower the bail. Weitzman moved quickly through the cases, most of the time leaving the bail the same.

Occasionally, bail review hearings are humorous. Only rarely do they rise to the level of high drama, but the one in Weitzman's court did this day. The court's attention was soon focused on 15-year-old Robert Corporal, who was charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder. He was being held without bail.

The 15-year-old was charged with shooting another boy. Public Defender Lenwood Ivey told Weitzman that the accused also was a victim. He had been shot in the shoulder prior to the other shooting. The eyewitness who fingered him, Ivey said, was a relative of the other shooting victim.

Pretrial release recommended a bail of $35,000. The kid had no prior record. Ivey said the boy was a ninth-grader at Northwestern High School and that his 17-year-old sister, who showed up to support her brother, was an A student at the same school.

"He's not a flight risk," Ivey said. "His family will make sure he comes to court." Ivey asked that bail be set at $25,000.

"This is a 15-year-old with a handgun," Weitzman replied. "That makes him perhaps the most dangerous person in the city. Fifteen-year-olds with handguns don't belong on the street. A 15-year-old with a handgun is very risky."

Advising Ivey that she had to assume the facts in the charging document were true, Weitzman refused to set bail. The boy's older sister broke out in tears and burst from the courtroom, banging the door against the wall when she left.

"That's not fair," the boy's father, Calvin Corporal, said, walking out with two other women. Weitzman sent the bailiff over to caution the family about courtroom decorum.

"I'm going to sue the ... city," the father said over his shoulder as the bailiff neared him.

"Bring that man back here," Weitzman ordered.

As the boy's father stood before her, Weitzman explained to him that it was her job to take the statement of probable cause at face value.

"I know you're upset," she said. "You're a very supportive family."

Eyewitness testimony and identification being the shaky phenomena they are, Weitzman may have made a mistake. She chose - and the rest of us who aren't judges should be darned glad we weren't in her shoes on this one - to err, if indeed she did err, on the side of public safety.

The family of the other boy shot in this case might be perfectly happy with Weitzman's decision. But the judge's reasoning should prompt a question from the rest of us:

If judges, in bail review hearings, must assume charging documents are true, what's the purpose of either bail or bail review hearings?

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