The courtroom — Suffolk Superior Court, First Session — is open to the public. Anyone can walk in. But during the two days I sit there observing, I am the only disinterested onlooker. Everyone else is a court officer, or a lawyer, or a defendant, or a defendant’s mother, or weeping sister, or stony-faced girlfriend. What happens here happens in obscurity. For the most part these are not the high profile cases you read about in newspapers. These are offenses committed by unknown people, often for no clear reason.
The proceedings are slow (there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting) and fast: Once a docket number is called, the matter is settled in minutes.
A 24-year-old man in handcuffs pleads guilty to illegal firearm possession. His girlfriend spotted him on the street with the gun and called the police. He’s been in jail for almost a year. The judge questions him: How far did he go in school? (Eleventh grade.) What’s his employment history? (He’s had jobs in a cafeteria and a bed-and-bath store.) Does he understand that by pleading guilty he’s giving up his right to a trial? Is he entering this plea freely, knowingly, willingly? (Yes, your honor.) The sentence: 2½ to 3 years in state prison.
Another guilty plea. Public-assistance fraud. Larceny. A 51-year-old woman who claimed her son was living with her when he wasn’t. He’s dead now, shot. Her other kids are doing well. She left school after 11th grade. Worked in a coffee shop at the airport. Her health is bad: breast cancer, surgery, chemo, radiation. Now her cancer has recurred. She pleads guilty to stealing benefits from the state, a total of $44,565.38. She is sentenced to two years in prison, suspended. Five years probation.
Another man in handcuffs. He sold drugs to support his own habit. He’s been out on bail, but the friend who put up the surety needed the money back.
Another man in handcuffs. Firearms possession. He wants a different lawyer. He’s had two so far. They haven’t listened to him; the investigators they’ve hired haven’t come up with evidence; he’s asked them to file motions; they haven’t paid attention to the case law he’s cited. “The cases are irrelevant, your honor,” the lawyer says. “And the motions have been denied.”
A probation violation. The offender has been living in a sober house and getting treatment. But he has failed to report to his probation officer and hasn’t paid his probation fees. He doesn’t have a job or a high school degree. No money. Probation is reinstated. Community service in lieu of fees.
On it goes, more than 50 cases over the course of two days. Most, but not all, offenders are young. Some are black, some white. None, in the days when I’m there, has gone beyond high school. The judge and the courtroom proceedings treat them with dignity; it’s life itself that feels unfair.
And yet, if the deck is stacked against these offenders, the reality is far worse for their victims, when there is a victim. A 21-year-old man wearing glasses — he looks like a member of a high school science club — pleads guilty to stabbing a cab driver nine times; he was high and trying to steal money for more drugs. The cab driver’s victim impact statement is read aloud: “Previously I was happy. Now I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Are they here? Are they coming for me?’ ” He’s unable to work. His family has lost their house. He’s suffered permanent physical damage. “I never thought that trying to lift a jug of laundry soap or a gallon of milk would bring me to tears.”
Another victim impact statement, this one from a man with schizoaffective disorder who was savagely beaten (the charge: assaulting a disabled person) on an MBTA platform by five people, two of whom are pleading guilty today. “This attack would have been avoidable if the defendants had had an ounce of mercy or humanity.” He prays to God that his attackers might reach a new level of understanding of the impact of hate crimes. He asks that as part of their sentence, they undergo anger management counseling and watch the documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” The judge specifies both, along with prison time. Cost of the video to be split among the five offenders.