When I was younger, I spent a lot of time in courthouses.
Not because I was in trouble, but because it was my job. I worked for newspapers and, in those long-ago days, newspapers loved to cover the courts.
The courts provided a newspaperman’s fantasy come true. What stories! True crime tales. Good guys and bad guys. Good cops and bad cops. Celebrities caught driving drunk. Heroes, villains, big verdicts, just plain weird stuff. Lots of action and emotion. Sometimes, it felt a curtain rose on a drama in every corner of the courthouse.
But, to tell the truth, much of the time spent at the courthouse was pretty boring. There could be days—even weeks—of downtime, so we spent a lot of time just sitting around and waiting. And in those days, before cameras were allowed to broadcast from courtrooms, if you wanted to know what happened, you had to be there when it happened.
So I spent a lot of time sitting around and waiting for jurors to make up their minds, or for judges to start trials and hearings, or for someone to say or do something—anything—that could make a story. I waited in courtrooms, in hallways outside courtrooms, in judges’ chambers or in D.A.’s offices or in courthouse cafeterias notorious for undrinkable coffee.
And one thing I learned sitting around in courthouses is that the lawyers who sit around in courthouses can turn out to be pretty funny folks. They’ve got nothing to do but tell stories, after all.
Some of their stories were true. Some probably weren’t, but the folks who told them always claimed they were. One story, in particular, I remember hearing at least twice, set in two different courtrooms in two different states, and then again as a sketch on a TV comedy show. So I’m doubting it was true.
But here are a few of the favorite tales I picked up from lawyers, cops and bailiffs who had nothing better to do while waiting than tell courthouse tales.
Some of their stories—little more than one-liners, really—simply deflate the bosses of courthouse, the judges and self-righteous lawyers who have power over others. For instance, one circuit-riding judge was notorious for a story that when he was sent to oversee trials in a small, hot courthouse in a small, hot county, his robe opened when he stood up at the bench to reveal he was wearing nothing but boxers and socks beneath it. Another judge said he once had to stop a trial to let a famous, high-dollar lawyer arguing to the jury know that his fly was down.
Other tales are more in the vein of old “cops/crooks/lawyers (like kids) say and do the darndest things” yarns.
One judge told me the tale of a DeKalb County man who was robbed by two gunmen wearing ski masks. The victim thought he recognized the eyes of one of his friends behind one of the masks, but he wasn’t sure. The next morning, he got an unexpected phone call from the friend, who volunteered—without any prompting—that he wasn’t the man in the ski mask. Cleared that right up. Case closed.
Another story centers on a sleeping juror. In the middle of a sensational rape case, one of the male jurors fell asleep. No one noticed.
A while later, when the victim was recounting the horrible events of the attack, she was so overcome she couldn’t continue talking. The prosecutor asked her to write down on note paper what the attacker had said and done to her. She did. The note was passed to the judge, who glowered at the accused attacker in outrage, and then had it delivered to the jury so they could read it. As it was passed from juror to juror, each read it silently and then turned outraged and scornful looks at the accused.
Finally, a woman juror handed the note to the sleeping man. He opened his eyes, read the note, and stuck it in his pocket. The judge asked the juror to return the note to the bailiff so it could be entered in the trial record. “No sir, judge,” the juror said. “This note is just between this lady here and me.”
OK, I doubt that one really happened. But here’s one I think may have, in part because the prosecutor who told it to me said it did and he’s a federal judge now.
It seems that during a murder trial, the defense lawyer’s strategy was to prove the accused knifed the deceased and killed him in self-defense. No one had seen the fight, the lawyer argued, so no one could dispute that the two men had been fighting for their lives and the accused simply was saving himself.
To hammer home that line of thinking, the defense lawyer asked every witness the same few questions: “You didn’t see the fight, did you?” “You don’t know what happened before the stabbing, correct?” “Mr. Jones already was dead when you first saw the body, right?” The lawyer then sat down.
That final question changed with each witness to reflect the witness’ role in the investigation. It went from “when you examined the body” to “when you took the body to the morgue” to “when you first did whatever you did…” and so on.
Everything was going well through the first several witnesses. Each said yes, they hadn’t seen the fight, and yes, the man was dead when they arrived and looked around or examined or removed the body.
But then the medical examiner took the stand. The defense lawyer seemed to forget whom he was talking to. As the lawyer worked his way through his standard questions, he got to his point, that final question, and thundered, “and Mr. Jones was dead already when you performed the autopsy, correct?”
The medical examiner paused, blinked and replied, “Yes, sir. He was dead before I performed the autopsy. We like to do it that way. It cuts down on the screaming.”
After that, “it cuts down the screaming” became the standard answer to just about any question anybody asked in that courthouse. Sometimes, I use it still.