BEARING WITNESS…

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

“People say, what is the sense of this small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do." --Dorothy Day
Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court Judge Donarell R. Green IV

By John Cole Vodicka

I was in Magistrate Court four mornings this last week to observe first appearance bond hearings. On three of those mornings the same individual appeared in front of Magistrate Judge Donarell Green. Here's what happened, in three acts. ACT I: Scene: The small ACC magistrate courtroom. It is Wednesday, 8:50 a.m. Present are Magistrate Judge Donarell Green, a court clerk, and yours truly. First appearance bond hearings are conducted remotely, with the judge and clerk able to see and hear defendants on their computer screens. The defendants sit one-after-the-other in what is known as the jail "Booth" and are able to see and here the judge. Observers like myself can see and hear the judge and clerk but can only hear the voice of the defendants. Having already determined bond for several defendants this morning, Judge Green now calls the case of Anthony D. Mr. D. is 18-years-old. He is 5'6" tall and weighs 135 lbs. He is African American. He enters the jail Booth and sits in the lone plastic chair facing a TV monitor in front of him. Judge Green: Good morning. This is Judge Green. Before we go any further I'm going to ask you to sit up straight and look at me. Anthony D: Was it you that signed the warrant on me? Judge Green: Look at me, please. Let me explain the process this morning, okay? Anthony D: I asked 'Did you sign the warrant?' Yes or no? Judge Green: You've been charged with six counts of entering an auto, all felonies. I signed one of those six warrants. Anthony D: F**K YOU JUDGE GREEN!! (Immediately I hear the voices of two deputies, one male, one female. It sounds like they've quickly closed in on Mr. D. and are in the process of physically removing him from the Booth. Tussling sounds are coming from Judge Green's laptop audio.) Deputies: Hey! Hey! Come here! You don't ever talk to a judge like that! Let's go! Judge Green ( waiving his hands at the computer screen): Bring him back! Deputies, bring Mr. D. back. Put him back in the chair, please. (Mr. D. is put back in the chair.) Young man! You are going to have to sit here and listen to me. You have to listen. You will listen and learn. I want you to understand that you've only been charged with entering an auto. I'm not telling you that you're guilty of these charges. Because the police officers felt they had probable cause to arrest you does not mean that you are guilty. You'll have a chance at a later date to argue your innocence. But I will say this: It doesn't help you when you cuss out the judge. (Mr. D. gives an unintelligible mumbled and angry response.) Judge Green: Young man, please relax and calm down so we can get through this process. Anthony D: ( Angry, still.) Why did you put me in jail? Judge Green: I can see we're not going to get anywhere right now. Deputies, I'm going to ask you to bring Mr. D. back tomorrow morning and we'll try this again. Mr. D., I'm going to ask you to think about what I've said to you. Hopefully by tomorrow morning you'll be able to listen to me and we'll be able to complete the process I tried to start today. That'll be all. I stay in the small courtroom until the completion of all first appearance hearings. Afterwards, Judge Green appeared shaken but clearly concerned. He and I talk about Mr. D. for a few minutes. Judge Green: I don't want Mr. D. in jail. He's a young man. He doesn't have a criminal history as an adult. But these are serious charges and he needs to understand this. ACT II: Scene: The small magistrate courtroom. Thursday morning. It is almost 9:30 and first appearance hearings have gone on for about 45 minutes. I'm present as a courtwatcher, taking notes. Judge Green has put Mr. D.'s hearing last on the docket. He asks the deputy sheriff to bring Mr. D. into the Booth. Judge Green: Good morning, young man. Anthony D: Good mornin'. Judge Green: Are you feeling better? Anthony D: Yah. Judge Green: Sit up straight. We can talk better and more clearly when you sit up and look at me. Anthony D: Yah. Thanks. Judge Green: Before I decide on whether to give you a bond or not, I want to speak with your mother. Do you have a phone number for her? Anthony D: Don't remember it. Judge Green: What's your mother's name? Where does she live? (Mr. D. gives her name to the judge and an address. He then explains how to find his mother's apartment.) Mr. D: She stay in the houses across from Piggly Wiggly. Judge Green: Do you know anyone who can give me your mom's phone number? Mr. D: Nah. Judge Green: Well, I'm going to find your mother. I need to talk with her. Does she know your in jail? Mr. D: Probably not. Judge Green: Well, I will have to drive out to your mom's address to speak with her. (The judge pauses, looking intently at his laptop screen's image of 18-year-old Anthony D.) Judge Green: Young man, I need to tell you again, please don't cuss out a judge. ( Another pause.) I care about you 'bro. That's for real. You are a young man. Until now you've never been charged as an adult. I don't want you to be in jail. In fact, I'm considering giving you an OR bond so you don't have to pay any money to get out of jail. But you need to know that anger can stop you from a blessing. Anthony D: Yah. Judge Green: There has to be consequences for cussing at a judge. Anthony D: Yah. Judge Green: I'm going to keep you in jail one more night and bring you back in the morning and hopefully I'll have talked with your mom and I'll be able to give you an OR bond. But here's what I'm telling you to do. You ready to hear this? Anthony D: Yah. Judge Green: I want to receive a written apology from you. First, I want you to write an apology to the deputies who heard you cuss out a judge yesterday morning. And then I want you to write me--out of respect for me, and so I can have respect for you--an apology as well. (Judge Green asks Mr. D. if the sheriff's deputies are nearby in the Booth.) Deputy: Yes, your honor, I'm right here. Judge Green: Deputy, can you make sure that Mr. D. is given some paper and something to write with before you bring him back (to the cell block)? He needs this for an assignment I've given him. Deputy: Yes, your honor. Judge Green: ( Speaking now to Mr. D.) Okay. We've gotten through the tough stuff and now we've got a plan. I will find your mother and we'll put our heads together to talk about what we think might be best for you. And you and I will go from there. Okay? We'll see you tomorrow morning. Anthony D: Uh-huh. Thanks. Judge Green looks at me, the lone observer, sitting in the courtroom gallery. Judge Green: I was up all night thinking about this one. ACT III: Scene: The small magistrate courtroom. It's Friday morning, just before 10 o'clock. Judge Green, his clerk Cynthia Williams, and I are in the small courtroom. All of the first appearance cases have been heard, save one. Judge Green: Let's bring Anthony D. back into the booth, deputy. ( Mr. D. is instructed to sit again in the plastic chair.) Judge Green: Good morning! How are you this morning? Anthony D: Hello. Doin' good. Judge Green: Have you done your homework for me? Anthony D: Yah. Judge Green: Where is it? ( I hear what I think is the sound of Mr. D. fumbling through his jail uniform to find the paper, but apparently is not successful.) You can't find it? Anthony D: But I can tell you what I wrote. Judge Green: Let's hear it. What did you tell the deputies? Anthony D: I said I was sorry for what happened on Wednesday. I was mad. Judge Green: Okay. And what did you write to me? Anthony D: I said, 'My bad. I was mad I got warrants put on me for no reason. I'm sorry.' Judge Green: Okay. Thank you for that apology. Now I want to tell you that I went out to your mother's house last night and we spoke for maybe 30 minutes. I spoke to your stepdad, too. They told me that you are not able to get along with them and your stepfather is fearful for his safety. They are not willing to have you move in with them. At least not for awhile. Anthony D: Uh-huh. Judge Green: That's not the news I wanted to hear from your parents. But listen to this: I also spoke to a good friend of mine in Commerce. He runs a steel manufacturing company and is willing to hire you if you'll go to Commerce and do an interview with him. If he likes you he'll start you off 40 hours a week at a good wage and you'll learn a trade. This is a chance for you to move forward, to learn from the trouble you're in to do better for yourself. Do you think you can do this? Anthony D. Maybe. What I got to do? Judge Green: I'm gonna release you on an OR bond this morning. When you get out of jail, I want you to call my friend and set up a time when you can meet with him. Do you have transportation to Commerce? Anthony D: Nah. Judge Green: We'll work on that. I'll see what we can do to get you back-and-forth from Athens. Anthony D: Okay. Judge Green: Okay. Here's another condition I'm ordering you to follow when I release you: You are to call me every two weeks to let me know you where you are and what you are doing. I expect that. Anthony D: Uh-huh. Yah. Judge Green: Alright. Good luck Mr. D. I believe in you. I will talk to you in two weeks. Judge Green, his clerk Ms. Williams, and I talk after the hearing concludes. Ms. Williams wonders out loud if Mr. D. really understands that Judge Green wants what's best for him going forward, but also notes how important it can be just to reach people whenever given the opportunity. Judge Green: We're losing too many young men just like Mr. D. We've got to figure this out as a community. Mr. D. has had some horrible experiences already and he's only 18. But he's smart, and he's got a whole life ahead of him.
John Cole Vodicka is with the Athens Area Courtwatch Project and the Oconee Street United Methodist Church Racial Justice Task Force.
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