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Judge Sonafabitch

The Last Hurrah of Judge Early Strayhorn

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"People come in here with preconceived notions," Cook County circuit court judge Earl E. Strayhorn tells a group of prospective jurors. "Wipe your minds free and clear of them. Nothing you've seen on any of those programs--NYPD Blue, L.A. Law--is going to happen here. No one is going to jump up in the back of the courtroom and confess to the crime. Those are entertainment programs, written by scriptwriters, designed to keep you glued to the screen until the advertiser's message is shown. There is no message here. Justice is not for sale."

The judge--famous for presiding over high-profile trials like those in which he sentenced Anthony Garrett to 100 years for murdering Dantrell Davis and neo-Nazi Jonathan Haynes to death for murdering a Wilmette plastic surgeon--winds down his monologue with instructions on where to find lunch. He then slows his speaking pace and carefully enunciates each word, reeling in the audience for a surprise punch line. "Be back here at 2 PM. My name is Judge Strayhorn. This is courtroom 706. If you forget my name and the courtroom, ask anyone in the building to direct you to Judge SOB. They'll send you here."

The delivery is perfect. Laughter bursts from the spectators' gallery. It happens every time. The prospective jurors thirst for comic relief after a long hour of listening to Strayhorn lecture by rote on what could be material for Criminal Justice 101--the legal meaning of an indictment, the notion of innocent until proved guilty, the state's burden of proving guilt, the basics of the Fifth Amendment.

The judge smiles. The laughter dies. The prospective jurors refrain from any impulse to applaud. They exit the courtroom amused, but unaware that if they're selected for jury duty the performance--what Strayhorn calls grandstanding, playing to the gallery, or "going into my act"--will continue.

"I always think of law like theater," says Robert Goodman, one of three public defenders assigned to Strayhorn's courtroom. "Sometimes the attorneys take over. But in that courtroom Strayhorn's always the star, the leading man."

And sometimes nobody's laughing. For Maria Chamblis Price and her public defenders the show starring Judge Sonofabitch was no comedy.

On a Friday afternoon in May Chamblis Price waived her right to a jury trial, leaving Strayhorn solely responsible for deciding her fate. The prosecutors accused her of committing a "cold and calculated" murder. The public defenders argued that she had acted in self-defense. The bench trial lasted only two days, but it so inflamed one of the attorneys involved that even weeks afterward he would say, "I want to tell Strayhorn where to go and how quickly to go there."

Perhaps more than any other criminal-courts judge, Strayhorn inspires equally impassioned veneration and vexation among those involved in the legal system. This may be attributable to his dynamic bench presence--which makes Judge Wapner of The People's Court seem timid--and his bold and at times unconventional methods of determining justice. In 1991, for example, Strayhorn unexpectedly ventured out to Elk Grove Village to tour a plant operated by the Chicago Magnet Wire Corporation, which had been charged with aggravated battery and reckless conduct for allegedly exposing workers to toxic chemicals. The judge wanted to view working conditions firsthand, so he donned safety glasses and earplugs and spent an hour and a half roaming the facility, even climbing a three-story ladder to a catwalk.

Assistant state's attorney Mark Shlifka, one of three prosecutors assigned to Strayhorn's courtroom, remembers the warning given to him by his predecessors: Strayhorn basically does what he wants and yells at everyone, characteristics that dart between being helpful and harmful to a case.

The day Chamblis Price's trial began the judge seemed particularly surly. During the morning's court call a 53-year-old man convicted of possession of a controlled substance appeared before him for sentencing. The judge offered a choice: incarceration or probation. "But you should know," he warned, "I've been told my probation is tougher than incarceration. Do you know what they call me on the streets? Do you? They call me Judge Sonofabitch." Strayhorn laid out the terms of probation, one of which was that the defendant would be allowed to leave home only to report to a probation officer or to take a drug test.

"But judge--" the defendant began.

Strayhorn cut him off, quickly sentencing him to two and a half years in prison and ordering the court deputies to take him away.

Seven months earlier the 76-year-old judge had undergone quadruple bypass surgery and had taken a three-month leave to recuperate. Not long after his return a buzz started circulating that Strayhorn had returned a changed man.

"Strayhorn's been brash lately," one attorney observed. "More impatient, more difficult, more intolerant, more old man, more cantankerous."

"He's always been in control of the courtroom and very forceful," said another. "But it seems now to the point he's gotten a little bit abusive."

Presiding judge of the criminal division Thomas Fitzgerald puts it this way: "Judge Strayhorn has a unique personality. He has a wealth of experience and a tremendous commitment to justice. That may sound corny, but it happens to be true. If sometimes he's impatient with people, that just may be because of the number of years he's been around."

A 24-year veteran of the bench--he graduated from DePaul College of Law in 1948 and spent four years as a prosecutor and nearly 20 as a defense counsel before being elected to the bench in 1970--Strayhorn is too old to run for reelection when his term ends in 1998.

"These days are his last hurrah," says one attorney. "And he's taking them with gusto."

Judge Strayhorn thought Chamblis Price's trial was a yawner. As far as he was concerned, he said later, the facts of the case were "run of the mill."

On the afternoon of June 28, 1993, Chamblis Price killed her closest friend's husband. She had been at home in the Rockwell Gardens projects cooking pigs' feet and rice when her four-year-old daughter and her friend's son, Jason, entered her kitchen in tears after fighting. Chamblis Price reprimanded them and sent Jason home and her daughter to her room. Still crying, Jason informed his mother, Linda Collins, that Chamblis Price had hit him. A short time later he and his mother returned to Chamblis Price's; Collins wanted her friend to explain what had occurred. Chamblis Price mentioned the children's fight, then the women quickly moved on to other things. In two years of living next door to each other they'd developed a sisterlike relationship. Collins had been the maid of honor in Chamblis Price's wedding; each permitted the other to smack her kid; they entered each other's apartment without knocking. When the women said good-bye that day, neither was concerned about the children's skirmish. Chamblis Price told Collins she'd stop by soon to borrow catsup, and Collins returned home.

But Jason later complained to his father, Robert Earl Collins, that Chamblis Price had slapped him on the back. When Chamblis Price approached the Collinses' apartment, Robert Earl stood in the doorway accusing her of mistreating his son. A loud, venomous exchange ensued, and Chamblis Price stabbed Robert Earl once with a kitchen knife. The knife punctured his left ventricle, and he collapsed to the floor bleeding from the chest. As he lay dying, he said he felt uncomfortably hot. He asked for something cold, and his wife rubbed ice on his wound. He asked her to pray with him, and she held his hand pleading for God's help.

Public defender Robert Goodman and his supervisor Kendall Hill defended Chamblis Price. They hoped for an acquittal, but thought at worst she would be convicted of second-degree murder. When planning the defense strategy Goodman and Hill had no qualms about putting her on the stand. Articulate and without prior criminal convictions, she made a presentable witness. They expected her testimony to cast doubt on the state's assertion that she acted with intent to kill. They also assumed it would stir the judge's compassion. Chamblis Price claimed that Robert Earl Collins had struck the right side of her face during the altercation and that she reacted instinctively with the knife. Goodman and Hill argued that she had been seven months pregnant at the time and knew enough about her friend's husband to reasonably believe her life and that of her unborn baby were in danger. Looming eight inches over Chamblis Price and weighing 47 pounds more, Collins threatened to be an unfair match. He was a cocaine user and had the drug's by-product in his system at the time of his autopsy; he had also once been arrested for hitting his wife. Chamblis Price would testify that she'd seen him hit and kick Linda numerous times and had provided her friend refuge on several occasions. She would also testify that she once witnessed him beating another woman from the neighborhood.

But Chamblis Price's recollection of the moments before she killed Robert Earl were not corroborated. Goodman and another public defender searched Rockwell Gardens for something or someone to confirm her story to no avail. Without evidence to prove Robert Earl struck Chamblis Price--no eyewitnesses, no hospital records, no visible swelling or bruise in her arrest photo--Goodman and Hill advised her to take a bench trial.

"You try to learn the judge's tendencies," says Goodman. "Strayhorn's reputation is to be sympathetic to women. We took a bench trial based on that."

Obscured from the attorneys' view among the gavel, water pitcher, trial notebook, law books, courtroom measurements, and distress alarm on Strayhorn's judicial bench is an index card titled "The Creed of a Trial Judge." Among the tenets it espouses is "Be dispassionate."

Strayhorn, who presides over about 1,100 cases each year, realizes that before each working day ends he'll anger at least a few people. It's par for the course when you're boisterous, serving the last term in an elected office for which there's no impeachment process, and in the business of what you like to call "resolving disputes." As he sees it, "There are two sides to every dispute. The losing side will always be dissatisfied."

Strayhorn often boasts that he can be a son of a bitch, repeating his nickname either in a jocular vein to break the formality of jury selection or with a gravity he hopes will deter defendants from activities that could land them back in his courtroom. He believes jail inmates first christened him with the moniker Judge Sonofabitch 20 years ago. The rigidity of his probation terms and the strict manner in which he enforced them probably provided the impetus. Strayhorn tailors defendants' probation terms, but always insists they report regularly to probation officers, acquire a high school diploma or GED, and, if the conviction is drug related, submit to drug testing.

Strayhorn is confident he's doing something right. He estimates that only 2 percent of his probationers recidivate. According to the Cook County adult probation office, which doesn't break down such statistics by judge, the average statewide recidivism for this kind of intensive probation is around 50 percent.

Strayhorn credits his admirable track record in part to his nickname. "I want [probationers] looking over their shoulders, being careful as to what they do," he says. "I don't want my words to be taken as empty symbols. I want them to be taken seriously. If they have to be afraid because of that reputation, fine. Better they be afraid of me and not violate the law."

Not long ago Strayhorn confronted a defendant who promised but failed to meet the terms of probation. "You spit in my face," he said. "You lied to me once, and I'm not going to give you the chance to do it again." Strayhorn then ordered his court deputies to "take her away"--a pronouncement that seals the fate of defendants daily.

"Generally you do not get a second chance in front of him," says assistant state's attorney Shlifka. "You might get one, and if you screw it up don't look for probation again and don't come begging for mercy."

Strayhorn projects a tough image in open court and at times in his chambers, where one day last summer he sat conducting a plea-bargaining conference with attorneys. After silently listening to the facts of the case--the defendant had been brought in on Class IV drug-possession charges--Strayhorn asked about the man's background.

"He was convicted of a burglary in 1992 and spent time in the penitentiary," said the prosecutor. "He must have been out on parole when the drug thing happened."

"He's 31," the defense attorney said. "Married with two kids. He was employed at the time." Then he added, "It was a small amount of crack."

"He's got a habit," Strayhorn said. "What's he doing about that?"

"Not much," said the defense attorney.

"I'm going to order random drops," Strayhorn said. "If he wants to plead guilty I'll give him 30 months probation and fine him $5,000. He's got a problem. Tell him to make his choice. Probation and $5,000 or two years in the penitentiary. Then he doesn't have to worry about me for 30 months. If he takes probation and they bring him back--and they will--I'll give him three years."

"Judge, as far as the $5,000--" the defense attorney began.

"Hey, I'm not going to slap him on the wrist."

"That's a lot of money."

"I know it's a lot of money. It's supposed to hurt. He's supposed to take the crunch. Otherwise he'd walk out of here and think he beat the system. Did you hear me? I'm a son of a bitch. That's my name."

Later in the day the defendant accepted the plea offer.

"You have a drug problem," Strayhorn scolded. "Everybody knows it but you."

Like all courtrooms in the Criminal Court Building at 26th and California, 706 is replete with "no"s. Signs in and outside the courtroom notify spectators and defendants that there's no smoking, no eating, no children, no talking, no admittance to the judge's chambers, and positively no visiting in the courtroom or cell blocks. The "no" Strayhorn enforces with the most fervor is unposted, although on any given day it's as obvious as if it were affixed to his bench in flashing pink neon. "There's no BS in his courtroom," says Shlifka. "He's seen it all. He's heard it all. Forget all the garbage."

To Strayhorn, bullshit includes anything he believes shows irreverence to the institution of the judiciary. That could be lying witnesses or crying defendants or repetitive attorneys or relatives, lovers, or friends who rejoice vocally or visibly upon hearing a favorable verdict. They all risk the wrath of Strayhorn, who, as one spectator observed, "looks as if he could put a good sweat into you."

Sitting on the elevated bench, the silver-haired Strayhorn appears larger and meaner than his small-boned, five-foot-nine physique and delicate, narrow facial features would suggest. The skin on his face, unusually smooth and taut for a man his age, bears few visible markings beyond a birthmark on each cheek and crease lines that bow around his mouth when he purses his lips, as he often does while rocking back and forth on his chair listening to testimony.

Sometimes when Strayhorn is bored with the evidence in a case he begins to daydream or get drowsy. Then he stands behind his chair or paces. Curiously he remained seated during Maria Chamblis Price's trial.

When public defender Goodman asked Linda Collins during cross-examination if she'd seen Chamblis Price stab Robert Earl Collins, the judge interjected, "Oh, is that an issue?"

"Yes, totally your honor," Goodman responded. Establishing that Linda was not an eyewitness was the first step in supporting the defense's position that no one had been able to see whether Robert Earl struck Chamblis Price or whether Chamblis Price had left the scene to secure a knife, as the prosecution claimed (she claimed she'd had it in her hand all along).

Strayhorn allowed Goodman to proceed.

A short while later Goodman attempted to show that Robert Earl had a tendency to be violent. "You have had him arrested for hitting you and choking you about the face in the past, isn't that correct?" he asked.

"Yes," Linda Collins answered.

Shlifka objected. "Arrests are irrelevant. I think--under People v. Lynch I believe you need a conviction."

"Overruled."

"You had him arrested?" Goodman continued.

"Oh, she answered that," Strayhorn intoned.

"And he's done that on more than one occasion?" Goodman asked.

"No," Collins said.

"He's only hit you one time?"

"Me and my husband, we argued, but he never was really violent with me."

"When was the one time that you say that you've gotten into a physical confrontation?"

"Sustained," said the judge, without waiting for the prosecution to object. "She said one time. Go on to something else."

Confused, Collins started to answer, but Strayhorn said, "Shut up, ma'am."

When court is in recess Strayhorn returns to his chambers, where he's surrounded by plaques praising his accomplishments. Over the years he's won numerous awards, including awards for excellence and meritorious service, from diverse local and national organizations, such as the Illinois Public Defender Association, the National Black Prosecutors Association, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association, and the IIT Chicago Kent Chapter of National Black Law Students Association, which presented him with the Thurgood Marshall Award. His most recent award is from the Tuskegee Airmen, the prestigious unit of African American World War II fliers, who honored him for ten years of service as the group's parliamentarian. Strayhorn never flew in World War II, because he failed to meet the physical standards; his blood pressure was too high, the result, he says, of a successful conspiracy between his wife and mother-in-law to pump him full of pork and fat. But for 18 months he was in ground combat in Italy, and relics from his military days--a disarmed hand grenade, bullet casings, framed battalion flags--decorate his chambers. Among the plaques and souvenirs are photographs of tanks and troops from Operation Desert Storm, his three grandchildren, a white-water rafting trip.

Unless he's officiating at a three-minute wedding for a Cook County Jail inmate--he conducts about 50 a year--Strayhorn removes his judicial robe while tending to off-the-bench matters, frequently massaging lotion into his hands, talking to attorneys about their vacations or new babies, answering his mail. He gets an onslaught of requests from groups wanting him to be a speaker as well as letters from defendants requesting a sentence reduction, which get a standard response. He also talks on the phone to friends and reporters. Last summer WTTW producer Jane Kaplan called to ask how to maneuver a camera crew past the courthouse security officers. She'd heard Strayhorn was a "good storyteller" and had scheduled an interview with him for the documentary Remembering Chicago, about the city during the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

Strayhorn also travels around the country four or five times a year teaching trial procedure to judges and attorneys, and to many of them he's a mentor. "I always say that I have two fathers," says Neil Cohen, an assistant state's attorney who was a prosecutor assigned to Strayhorn's courtroom in 1978. "My natural father and Judge Strayhorn, my father-in-law. Both have taught me well. You don't always agree with your father, but you respect him and love him. And I love Judge Strayhorn dearly."

The public defenders and prosecutors assigned to his courtroom consider him politically independent, favoring neither state nor defense consistently.

The prosecutors value Strayhorn's tough probation policies and knack for smelling bullshit. He's streetwise, they say, and won't coddle defendants. He'll stare intently into a defendant's eyes and scoff, "Stop crying like some schnook." Or ask, "Where's your stash, man?" Or "When was your last fix?"

A glossary of crack names and phrases and an article headlined "How to Identify Gang Members" are taped to a shelf in Strayhorn's chambers. Assistant state's attorney Shlifka remembers an incident where the judge spotted one of the gang accessories listed. "A guy was in for a probation violation. He had not been reporting, hadn't gotten his GED like he was supposed to. Young kid, street punk. He came up to the bench in a black leather jacket and an earring in his ear acting all tough. And the judge just reduced this guy to Silly Putty. He said, 'Take that ear bob out of your ear.' The guy took the earring out, and the judge said, 'Throw it away.' The guy looked around. The judge said, 'Give it to me. I'll throw it away.' He handed his earring up to the judge, and the judge tossed it in the garbage. The judge said, 'You do what I tell you or you're going to jail.' He had this guy basically turned into mush right before my eyes. I think that particular probationer got the point."

Defense attorneys extol Strayhorn's staunch protection of the Fourth Amendment--they say he's dedicated to tossing out evidence acquired in warrantless searches--and his refusal to give extra weight to a police officer's testimony. They say it's rare for a judge to acknowledge that police officers can be as racist and untruthful as any witness. Strayhorn has little tolerance for officers who commit perjury. He'll reproach them in open court, threaten to spread news of their misdeeds to other judges, then add their names to a card file that lists others of their ilk. "They are entitled to be listed separately from the fine, honest, professional officers who risk their lives every day," says Strayhorn. "They shouldn't be on the force and deserve the same degree of respect and responsibility."

According to Chicago police officer Isidor Ramos, who has testified twice in 706, Strayhorn is well respected among officers. "As long as your investigation is concrete he's with you 100 percent."

Private defense attorney Raymond Prusak says he'd heard of Strayhorn's contempt for corrupt officers and banked on it when preparing for the trial of Anthony Garrett. Under statutory law attorneys can request two judge substitutions in the first ten days of a murder proceeding. Unless the attorneys are court appointed a computer randomly assigns cases to courtrooms. "I had heard Strayhorn was a judge with balls. That's why I stayed with him," says Prusak, who believes police, under pressure to solve the highly publicized murder of Dantrell Davis, beat a confession out of Garrett. "I thought he'd see this was hasty police work--going out and picking up the usual suspect. My client has a background of sniping and gangbanging. He was perfect to pick up. If police are going to frame somebody they're not going to pick a choirboy. "I thought Judge Strayhorn would see through the phony confession."

Strayhorn disappointed Prusak. At times, Prusak says, the trial got so heated that he and the judge wound up sparring over seemingly insignificant things, as when the judge accused Prusak of glaring at him. "I was on pins and needles the whole time," says Prusak.

"If attorneys feel intimidated by me that's their perception and I'm sorry," says Strayhorn. "But sometimes they deserve to be blown up at. If they're wasting my precious court time by what I call grandstanding--doing something in the public's view just for the cause of showing off--they're going to get bit, and they're going to get bit real hard." Before the trial ended Strayhorn slapped Prusak with a $100 contempt-of-court fine.

"There were a lot of theatrics," Prusak recalls. "You never expect a judge to get that involved. He really was the center of the trial." In his motion for a new trial Prusak cited 23 reasons he thought Strayhorn denied Garrett a fair and impartial trial. Along with standard references to errors in legal judgment were references to errors in behavior: "The Court erred and engaged in judicial misconduct when it interrupted the defense counsel's closing argument to the jury. The Court in engaging in such conduct prevented defense counsel from presenting his argument in a planned and thoughtful manner. Instead, counsel was forced to rush through his argument and was threatened on more than one occasion by this Honorable Court of being 'cut off' from completing his planned and prepared argument. The result of this action by the Court denied defendant his basic right to a jury trial."

According to the Illinois Supreme Court clerk's office, 13 writs of mandamus--a challenge that attorneys file with the supreme court when they believe a judge has proceeded illegally--have been filed against Strayhorn since 1982, when it began keeping computer records of such motions. "I'm probably the champion of that, because I take chances and do things that the law doesn't specifically say can or cannot be done," Strayhorn admits.

Presiding Judge Fitzgerald confirms that more writs of mandamus have been filed against Strayhorn than against most of the other 48 judges in the criminal courts division. "But I view that as a positive," he says. "A man of very strong views would have that happen. The nature of being a judge calls for integrity, and Judge Strayhorn is a man of integrity on every level."

Mercedes Luque-Rosales, an assistant state's attorney in 706, says Strayhorn never surprises her. "Strayhorn is Strayhorn. He runs his courtroom as a judge should. He's neither afraid nor intimidated of the appellate or supreme court."

Strayhorn's judicial independence is illustrated by a controversial 1990 ruling in which he disregarded the Illinois habitual-offender law--which mandates life imprisonment for a person convicted of a third felony--by sentencing an armed robber, James Gaston, to only 15 years. After prosecutors filed a writ of mandamus, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered Strayhorn to resentence Gaston according to the law. Instead Strayhorn reviewed the case, determined he'd made an error of judgment, and released Gaston to the community with a new finding of not guilty. Prosecutors again requested supreme court intervention. The court demanded that Strayhorn issue a warrant for Gaston's arrest and impose a sentence of life imprisonment. Strayhorn issued the warrant, but Chicago police never apprehended Gaston. A year later officers in Milwaukee arrested him on a separate charge of first-degree murder, for which he was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Gaston incident came at a time when Americans, caught up in getting tough on crime, had invested $30 billion in prison construction, which doubled the capacity of the nation's correctional institutions. Strayhorn's rulings only fed the general anxiety about a lax legal system. Mike Royko wrote two unflattering columns about the judge, calling Gaston's acquittal "daffy," criticizing Strayhorn for employing "bizarre legal acrobatics," and suggesting that he ran with a "soft-hearted crowd." Even the National Enquirer got in on it, calling him a "softy judge" and his justice "warped." That article now hangs on the door of Shlifka and Luque-Rosales's office.

Strayhorn shrugs off such criticism. "It goes with the territory. I don't make decisions wanting to be popular. I make them based upon what I should do. I don't deliberately violate the law. There are some legal reasons why I do what I do." An ardent critic of legislators encroaching on judicial independence with mandatory sentencing, Strayhorn admits that some of his rulings are intended to send a message that the law ought to be changed.

Public defender Tim Lohraff, also assigned to 706, says, "The Gaston ruling took a lot of guts. The supreme court says you must sentence him, so you turn around and say, 'Fuck you. Not Guilty.' Strayhorn is pretty famous for doing what he wants and having the guts to be very independent."

To Strayhorn, this kind of unpredictability is a mark of an impartial judge. "I'm not a rubber stamp," he says. "You can't take what I do in one instance with one individual with one set of facts as what I'm going to do in another instance with another individual with another set of facts."

But that unpredictability also frustrates attorneys like Prusak, Goodman, and Hill, who advise their clients and base their arguments partly on what they understand of a presiding judge's inclinations. "Unpredictability is almost the worst thing there is for an attorney," says Lohraff. "It's kind of like a referee in a pro sports game--where the batters or basketball players just want consistency so they know how to play."

As much as Strayhorn may try to be dispassionate, sympathy inevitably affects some of his rulings. "He's a human being with emotions," says Luque-Rosales. "He has a tough exterior, but inside he has a big heart."

Not long ago a young man stood before him in beige Cook County Jail garb, one hand gripping the wrist of his other hand behind his back, listening as the judge derided him.

"That's the dumbest thing I ever saw," Strayhorn said. "You have 15 years hanging over your head and you violate the rules."

The young man had broken the terms of his probation by breaking the rules of the residential drug-treatment facility where Strayhorn had sent him instead of prison. Given an evening pass, the defendant had stayed out all night.

Strayhorn turned to the defense attorney. "Tell me why I shouldn't give him the 15 years I promised him."

"Judge, there's no proof that he did drugs."

"He lucked out. Got away with it. For violation of probation I don't have to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. I don't need that when I'm dealing with dope addicts, which he is." Strayhorn looked back at the defendant. "What do you want to say?"

"I have not used drugs since January," the young man insisted. "I know it was a stupid act. I went to see a girl."

"You're telling me you were in love?"

"Yes."

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-four."

"You still in love with her?"

"Uhh," said the defendant, then paused. Finally he said somewhat timidly, "I still care for her."

"Well, is it reciprocated?"

"I think so."

"Put him on bond," the judge said to his court deputies. He then turned to the defendant and warned, "You have one foot on a banana peel and the other foot in the penitentiary door."

The defendant walked out of the courtroom raising a triumphant fist.

"He told me he was in love," Strayhorn later explained. "I can understand those circumstances."

Strayhorn interrupted public defender Goodman's closing argument six times--three times to say he didn't believe Maria Chamblis Price's testimony, once to say that even if Robert Earl Collins had struck Chamblis Price first it didn't justify her stabbing him, once to stop Goodman from citing case law, and once to tell him to "finish up." Strayhorn then summoned Chamblis Price to the bench, declared her guilty of first-degree murder, and set a date for sentencing. "Take her away," he said to his deputies. Later he would describe the trial as a "typical case of a person overreacting to a verbal argument."

Fifteen of Chamblis Price's friends and relatives, including her four children, had packed two benches in the spectators' gallery to watch the two-day proceedings. After the trial they huddled around Goodman in the hallway outside the courtroom. "This was the worst-case scenario," he told them. "We're all in shock."

Chamblis Price took the loss hard. "The trial was wrong," she said afterward. "Real wrong. Strayhorn wasn't even listening. He ruined my whole life." A first-degree murder conviction carries a minimum 20-year prison sentence.

Chamblis Price wrote the judge a remorseful letter that said, "It was not my intention to harm Earl in any way. I'm hurting for his family as well as my own. I cared for Earl and Lin as if they were a part of my own family. . . . But please don't think I don't hurt, also I hurt because every day I have to live with the fact that I took someone's life. Not just anybody's life, somebody I cared for and can say I loved." Goodman filed and Strayhorn denied a motion for a new trial. Hill filed a motion to reconsider the finding, asking Strayhorn to reduce the conviction to second-degree murder, the verdict when a person kills out of a belief that his or her life is in danger but the court deems the belief unreasonable.

After gaining access to Chamblis Price's presentencing report--a list of her past brushes with the law, none of which ended up in court--Strayhorn reduced the verdict to second-degree murder. "It was a close call," he said at the time. "I was comfortable with the first-degree conviction, but I didn't feel comfortable with the fact that I had to sentence her to 20 years. I was thinking more about her kids than her and the impact it would have on them."

Strayhorn sentenced Chamblis Price to ten years in prison. Because of the time she'd already served and the state policy of eliminating one day of a sentence for every day served with good behavior, she may serve only three and a half years.

"It was like taking a defeat and turning it into a total victory," said Goodman.

"You just never know with Strayhorn," says public defender Lohraff.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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