Having already figured out that one can go most anywhere in the United States of America just so long as he’s not carrying a bomb, we turned up in the town square for the Pulaski Court General Session due to commence at 1 pm and learned yet again that not much is as it seems in that extraordinary nation.
A troupe of school girls—on Spring break, obviously—was waiting outside the courtroom with their teacher. We went in to sit down and the girls followed. Four men and a woman, each in orange (hunter’s blaze) jumpsuits and shackled with heavy chains around their waists and hands, shuffled in on leg irons. The judge—a dead ringer for Western Australia’s Geoff Gallop—entered right on cue and everyone except Meryn and me took the pledge of allegiance with hands on hearts. All very solemn and religious. But only for the moment because there was an altogether relaxed down-home atmosphere in every other respect. Even the chains and leg irons were more for show than substance. An afternoon of theatre.
The judge said he’d give the defence attorneys half an hour to meet with their prospective clients—for the first time in all but one or two cases. The parade of lawyers was a performance in itself: they all wore suits but had little else in common. The tallest among them leaned on the sill and stared out the window; the shortest, buttoned braces and hands where his fob pocket should be, walked with splayed feet, a copy of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp. The smooth-haired prosecutor left by this door and returned by that in a seemingly endless round; his colleague looked like she’d just got back from a party with her long black dress and high boots.
All of the courtroom officials chewed gum. The policeman who leaned in the doorway had an exotic moustache and a little black book. He was forever driving out an invisible insect which had somehow infiltrated the side of his face through the left nostril, then another which had got in through the right, and then both at once; he talked to the woman who sat next to me. She was shocked, and repeated, presumably, what she’d heard: “Three years.” The black man in the jumpsuit looked straight at her and she said it again—“Three years?”—as if doing so would make it all make sense.
Then Geoff Gallop came back and the various accused people took their turn before him. Not only were the well dressed men and women in court not there in support of the jumpsuit felons, but neither were the apparent mother-father-and-son combinations any such thing, nor the spouses husband-and-wife pairs. All bar a few were having their day in court after having been charged with fighting and scratching, public intoxication, driving without a licence, driving without a seat belt ($US10.00 fine), and, in the case of the shackled woman, driving without a seatbelt and not restraining children with a seatbelt. No-one was on a school excursion.
A young girl sitting two doors down from me told Meryn that if the judge let her off this time then she would be enrolling in a college because education was a good way to get your life back on course. Each one spoke in polite terms saying “Yes Judge” and “No Judge.” The only disrespect toward the judge came when he enquired of the administrative staff seated up the back what had become of some paperwork. A woman explained that the computer had gone down but Mr Gallop made it known that he wasn’t satisfied. Her office colleague, a tall woman who sat immediately behind the one getting it in the neck, mimicked the judge’s outrage by way of parodying him.
The high calibre entertainment continued all afternoon. In one instance the only other observer (apart from we two Australians) cried out to the judge that so and so’s claim that he’d been before the court once before was incorrect: this was his third appearance, she pointed out. No-one challenged her right to throw in that two-penneth worth. Meryn dropped her mp3 recorder and the policeman with the tick came toward us. But he was on some other errand so no-one paid Meryn any mind. William Faulkner walked abroad.
Those criminals in orange blaze had committed crimes no more heinous than the rest of the people assembled there in that courtroom. The only difference was that they’d done so before and then again during the parole period. They’d all gone and the courtroom emptied of everyone but Meryn, me, and one other woman who had materialised. It turned out she was the mother of the innocent looking boy in the jumpsuit. We got down to an imitation of the real TV courtroom drama when she was called to the witness box and asked "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
The lawyers went at it hammer and claw while the judge determined whether there was “probable cause,” a prima facie case against the young man accused of rape. His graceful attorney put forward something of a “grassy knoll” defence arguing that no-one in the court had been present other than the defendant, who denied the charge. This was the wrong way round, surely? Shouldn’t he be saying that no evidence had been led which gave the court any reason to try the accused? But what would I know? I couldn’t tell the difference between a drunk driver and a school girl. The defendant had been known to the arresting police officer because he’d been picked up a couple of years earlier inside a stolen car. The judge found probable cause just before 5.20 pm. and we all went home and Meryn and I left for Memphis the next morning, Good Friday.
Chapter 26, 'Ole Miss'