Local Color: A Night in Court | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Local Color: A Night in Court

One after another the prisoners file in, and just as quickly out, as the paperwork flutters furiously from hand to pen to stapler to pen to hand to pile. . .


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All-rise-bond-court-79-is-now-in-session-Judge-Thaddeus-L.-Kowalski-presiding-please-be-seated." The man speaks so fast that he is finished before the rustle of our standing has died down. After a confused pause, we all sit.

It is night. The tall windows in the left wall are black except for the sodium-vapor street glow that falls on the Cook County prison buildings across the courtyard.

"Julio Baldez!" the man's amplified voice booms (Baldez is not his real name; the names of those who follow have also been changed). The judge looks across the front of the room to a doorway, through which another voice echoes, "Julio Baldez!" The amplified voice continues in an undertone--"Drunk and disorderly. DWI. Assault and battery"--as a figure emerges from the door. Slender, reddish-skinned, with thick black hair bulging around his head like muscles, the man walks submissively across the room to the bench that looms over him like a wooden fortress. Before him is a table where the court reporter sits transcribing, her brown hair bobbing as she types. Above the table sits a clerk. And towering over all, sitting in a row from right to left, are the judge and two clerks, one of whom is speaking into a microphone.

". . . and struck her repeatedly about the face and head with his hands outside his parked car, which he had been driving while under the influence. There are corroborating . . ."

The judge looks down at the prisoner. The prisoner looks up at the judge. An interpreter whispers into the prisoner's left ear. A rumpled public defender stands further to the prisoner's left, and on his left, an assistant state's attorney is reading the police report to the judge. Two hulking bailiffs hem the prisoner in from behind. The clerk beside the judge has stopped speaking and starts writing on the prisoner's triplicate bond form as the judge says, "Finding of probable cause. D-bond one thousand. Mr. Baldez, if you do not show up in court on March 19 you can be tried in your absence and convicted."

The clerk rips the triplicates apart--the rustle of thin tissue paper is amplified clearly--and hands the pink and yellow copies to the clerk at his left, who staples them to another form, fills in more information, then rips copies off and hands them forward and down. The clerk adds his handwriting to the record and sets it aside, the first of a pile.

The prisoner has already been led away. The processing begins in earnest.

"Two thousand I, show up in court. Susan Houk. Stipulate. . . . Houk! Show up there or you can be tried. Call three. Diane Davis. Show up there or you can be tried in your. . . . Diane Davis! Branch 40. Call Theresa Williams. Theresa Williams! Debra Johnson--Debra Johnson! Debra Johnson? Keeper of a house of prostitution. . . . stipulation--No bond forfeitures. Branch 40. Call three. Three. Two thousand I, show up in court. . . . stipulation in I-bond that he stay away from the property of Mr. Rivera. . . . stipulate. . . . Yessir. . . . finding of probable cause. . . . What time? Branch 38."

Above, below, and in between these voices, paperwork flutters furiously from hand to stapler to pen to hand to pile, while one after another the prisoners file in and just as quickly out. As they parade past, the fat guard sprawled against the filing cabinet beside their entrance ignores them, his face an expressionless frame for its black mustache.

"Sean Denehey. Sean Denehey!"

Out he walks through the doorway, dreamily stepping as if through viscous fluid. Over to the fortress, where he faces the judge, flat-footed, looking blankly ahead from under uncombed, dirty blond hair, blinking slowly and regularly, his mouth hanging open in his puffy face. His wispy mustache seems a seedy afterthought that might slide straight down off his face; his receding mouth and chin wouldn't stop it. He's wearing a shapeless blue windbreaker, smudged blue jeans, and beige construction boots.

He doesn't know that his parents have stood up in the next pew and are trudging toward the wooden railing. They don't say anything. They spoke before court was in session to the official now holding their son's arrest papers and reading them to the judge.

". . . and broke into his parents' home, whereupon he removed a 13-inch color television, a Bell & Howell movie camera, and several other items of value worth approximately . . ."

"Keep him," they had told the official one hour earlier, standing in the same spot. "He's no good on the streets. He needs help." The wife spoke; her thin-shouldered husband stood silent at her left. The official asked, "What's his name?" The husband turned his head slightly toward the wife, who answered, "Sean Denehey. S-E-A-N, not S-H," as if she had repeated this countless times.

The official shuffled through his fistful of papers.

"We don't want him in our house," she added, and the husband nodded, his eyes watery behind large thick glasses.

"OK, here it is. And you say your son has nowhere to go?"


"No friends or relatives?"

The husband shook his head. The wife answered, "None that are any good for him." Her eyes pleaded with the official. "Don't let him out. He needs help. He needs to get into the program."

Now the parents stand in the middle of the large, off-white courtroom. The hand-stenciled sign over the center door reads, "No attornies [sic] allowed in assembly." I can barely hear the assistant state's attorney announce, "Your honor, the parents have indicated that if he is released, he is not welcome back in their house, and have expressed the belief that the defendant is in need of drug counseling. Based on the statements made to this court, we feel that he should be placed in a drug rehab program."

The judge asks the defendant impassively, "Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?"

Sean Denehey answers, his voice full of scorn for the parents he has neither seen nor acknowledged, "I have a place to stay tonight."


The paperwork has been caught up on and only the court reporter moves as he responds, "With friends."

The judge announces, "2,000 D-bond."

The public defender protests. "Your honor, we feel that a cash bond would be an undue hardship in this case. The defendant's job will be jeopardized if he cannot make his cash bond, thereby defeating the purpose of his work-release program."

The judge relents, "All right, get a lawyer up for the drug counseling. Mr. Denehey, you're getting an I-bond in this case. Do not go to your parents' house until after the court date. You are advised to get drug counseling, and show up where you're supposed to go tomorrow morning."

The parents turn toward the right rear door. Their son turns toward the right front door. The paperwork rustles to life.

"Joaquin Fernandez!" the amplified voice calls out. "Driving while under the influence, drunk and disorderly. . . ." The parents are gone. "Joaquin Fernandez!" someone calls from the side room as Sean Denehey disappears into it. A short, stocky man with curly black hair rolls in with a swagger. He squints at us in the gallery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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