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At the tail end of a dog of a morning, Dismas Hardy was beginning to fear that he would also be spending the whole stiflingly dull afternoon in municipal court on the second floor of the Hall of Justice in San Francisco.
He was waiting--interminably since nine a.m.--for his client to be admitted into the courtroom. This would not have been his first choice for how to celebrate his forty-eighth birthday.
Now again the clerk called out someone not his client--this time a young man who looked as though he'd been drinking since he'd turned twenty-one and possibly two or three years before that. Maybe he was still drunk--certainly he looked wasted.
The judge was Peter Li, a former assistant district attorney with whom Hardy was reasonably friendly. The prosecuting attorney was Randy Huang, who sat at his table inside the bar rail as the defendant went shuffling past. The public defender was a ten-year veteran named Donna Wong.
Judge Li's longtime clerk, another Asian named Manny See, read the charge against the young man as he stood, swaying, eyes opening and closing, at the center podium. The judge addressed him. "Mr. Reynolds, you've been in custody now for two full days, trying to get to sober, and your attorney tells me you've gotten there. Is that true?"
"Yes, Your Honor," Donna Wong declared quickly.
Judge Li nodded patiently, but spoke in a firm tone. "I'd like to hear it from Mr. Reynolds himself, Counsellor. Sir?"
Reynolds looked up, swayed for a beat, let out a long breath, shook his head.
"Mr. Reynolds." Judge Li raised his voice. "Look at me, please. Do you know where you are?"
Donna Wong prodded him with her elbow. Reynolds looked down at her, up to the judge and his clerk, across to Huang sitting at the prosecution table. His expression took on a look of stunned surprise as he became aware of his surroundings, of the Asian faces everywhere he turned. "I don't know." A pause. "China?"
But the courtroom humor, such as it was, mingled uneasily with tragedy and the sometimes cruel impersonality of the law. Twenty-five very long minutes after the drunken Mr. Reynolds had been removed from the courtroom, another case had been called, another defendant--not Hardy's--brought in. He was beginning to think that his own client wouldn't get his hearing and that another entire day would have been wasted. This was not all that unusual an occurrence. Everyone bitched about it, but no one seemed to be able to make things better.
The new defendant was Joshua Bonder, and from the Penal Code section read out by the clerk, Hardy knew the charge was dealing amphetamines. But before things got started, Judge Li wanted to make sure that the three material witnesses in the case were in the building and ready to testify.
Hardy was half nodding off, half aware of the jockeying between Judge Li and the attorneys, when suddenly the back door by the judge's bench opened. At the sound of rattling chains--shades of the Middle Ages--Hardy looked up as a couple of armed bailiffs escorted three children into the courtroom.
The two boys and a girl seemed to range in age from about ten to fourteen. All of them rail-thin, poorly dressed, obviously terrified. But what sent an almost electric buzz through the courtroom was the fact that they were all shackled together in handcuffs and leg chains.
Joshua Bonder, whose own handcuffs had been removed for the hearing, screamed out, "You sons of bitches!" and nearly knocked over the defense table, jumping up, trying to get to the kids. "What have you done to my children?"
Hardy had seen many murderers walk into the courtroom on their own, without any hardware. He thought he'd seen most of everything here, but this shocked him to his roots.
And he wasn't alone. Both of the courtroom bailiffs had leapt to restrain Mr. Bonder, and now held him by the defense table. But Judge Li himself was up behind the bench, his normal calm demeanor thrown to the winds at this outrage.
"What the hell is this?" he boomed at the guards. "Uncuff those children at once!" His eyes raked the room, stopping at the prosecution table. "Mr. Vela"--the assistant DA who'd drawn Joshua Bonder--"what is the meaning of this?"
Vela, too, was on his feet, stammering. "Your Honor, you yourself issued the body attachments for these children as witnesses. We were afraid they would flee. They wouldn't testify against their father--he's their only guardian. So we have been holding them in Youth Guidance."
"For how long?"
Vela clearly wished the floor would open up and swallow him. "Two weeks, Your Honor. You must remember . . ."
Li listened, then went back to shouting. "I remember the case, but I didn't order them shackled, for God's sake!"
Vela the bureaucrat had an answer for that, too. "That's the mandated procedure, Your Honor. When we transfer inmates from Juvenile Hall and we think there's a flight risk, we shackle them."
Judge Li was almost stammering in his rage. "But look at these people, Mr. Vela. They're children, not even teenage--"
The father's attorney, a woman named Gina Roake, decided to put in her two cents' worth. "Your Honor, am I to understand that these children have been at the YGC for two weeks?"
Vela mumbled something about how Ms. Roake shouldn't get on her high horse. It was standard procedure. But Roake was by now truly exercised, her voice hoarse with disgust. "You locked up these innocent children in the company of serious juvenile offenders? Is that what you're telling me, Mr. Vela?"
"They are not innocent--"
"No? What was their crime? Reluctance to testify against their father? That's all? And for this they're shackled?"
Vela tried again. "The judge ordered--"
But Li wasn't having any part of that. Exploding, he pointed his whole hand at the prosecutor, now booming at the top of his voice. "I ordered the least restrictive setting that would ensure the children's return to court. Least restrictive, Mr. Vela. You know what that means?"
The smallest of the three kids had started crying, and the girl had moved over, putting her arm around him. As the bailiff moved in to separate them, Gina Roake cried out, "Don't you dare touch them. Your Honor?" A plea.
Which Li accepted. "Let them alone."
A moment of relative quiet ensued. Into it, Gina Roake inserted a heartfelt reproach. "Your Honor, this is the inevitable outcome when children are drawn into the criminal justice system. There has to be a better way. This is a travesty."
At long last, it was Hardy's turn.
His client, a thirty-two-year-old recent Dallas transplant named Jason Trent, made his living laying carpet and was now in custody charged with three counts of mayhem and inflicting grievous bodily injury pursuant to a fight in the 3Com Stadium parking lot after a 49er game.
Trent's story, and Hardy believed it, was that a trio of local boys had taken exception to his Dallas Cowboys attire and, after the Niners had been soundly thrashed, thought they would work out some of their frustrations by ganging up on the lone cowboy. This, in common with most of the other Niner decisions on the field during the game, turned out to be a bad idea for the home team.
Jason Trent had black belts in both karate and aikido and had also been a Golden Gloves champion in his teens back in Fort Worth. After being sprayed with beer and pushed from two directions at once, and all the while warning his assailants about his various defense skills, Jason had finally lost his temper. In a very short fight, he put all three boys on the ground. Then--his real mistake--he'd gone around with a few more rage-driven punches, in the process breaking two arms, one collarbone, and one nose.
"You should have stopped when they were down," Hardy had told him.
To which Jason had shrugged. "They started it."
Even so, the story probably would have ended there had not one of the three "victims" been the son of Richard Raintree, a San Francisco supervisor and political ally of District Attorney Sharron Pratt. Raintree contended that Jason Trent had overreacted to what amounted only to good-natured hazing and was himself drunk on beer. Sharron Pratt agreed--she'd ordered Jason arrested and charged. Now Hardy addressed Judge Li. "Your Honor," he said, "this is my client's first alleged offense. He has no criminal record, not even a parking ticket. He holds a steady job. He's married and has three young children. He shouldn't even be here in this courtroom. His alleged victims started this fight and he was forced to defend himself."
Li allowed a crack in his stern visage, glancing over at the bandaged and splinted victims at the prosecution table. "And did a good job of it, didn't he?"