Writing accounts based on published reports or TV coverage is easier. But you can get a different view of goings-on when you simply try to attend one of these proceedings in person.
I drove down to the new Regional Justice Center about 9 a.m. Thursday, pulling into the county parking lot at 3rd and Bonneville. The meters cost $1.50 per hour and won’t take credit cards, unlike the new “multi-bay” meters along the street. But the on-street spots were full.
The 75 cents in my pocket bought me 36 minutes, enough time to dash down the street, enter the Justice Center (where the carving on the lobby wall reads, “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” quoting a fellow whose armies had just shelled the civilian population of Vicksburg into submission), remove my belt and all my coins, pens, and wallet, as instructed, push them through the X-ray machines in little baskets, and allow myself to be wanded, in order to reach the “Information” desk, where I asked where I could get some coins for the parking meters in the county’s own adjoining lot.
“Nowhere in the building,” the woman told me, referring me to the “bank across the street.” Putting my belt on and stuffing my belongings back in my pockets, I hustled outside.
Across the street, the Courthouse Bar & Grill was clearly aware of the parking meter problem. The signs on the doors read, “No change without purchase!”
Being in no mood for the $8 “pork ribs and wings” before 10 in the morning, I hustled down the block to the to Bank of America, mindful of the ticking clock on my meter. As I waited in line to get change for a five dollar bill, a pleasant young bank employee approached me and asked me if I’d like to open an account. I guess I looked like a good prospect.
Finally in possession of sufficient coinage, I raced the two blocks back to my meter, feeding it another $3.25 for three hours. Then back to the Justice Center lobby, starting to feel like I was in cross-country training, where I again removed my belt and all metal objects in my pockets, including every plastic felt-tip pen with their small metal pocket clips.
Nonetheless, I still sounded the buzzer going through the portal, as everyone was doing that morning.
The bailiff had me hold my hands out “like an airplane,” wanded me, and waved me on.
“You didn’t find any metal on me, did you?” I asked.
“No, you can go.”
“So does it occur to you your machine might be set wrong, that you might want to adjust it?” I asked.
“You’ve got some rivets in your boots or something,” the bailiff responded, waving me on.
Heck, I could have had a Derringer in my boot, for all he cared. It’s all just for show: the Uniformed Wand-Wavers’ Full Employment Act.
The inquest was being held in courtroom 16-C, on the 16th floor. But they wouldn’t let me in. Two sizeable green-shirted bailiffs blocked my way, instructing me to go down the hall to Judge Valerie Adair’s vacant Courtroom 16-D, which was set up so that we could hear an audio feed of the inquest from adjoining 16-C.
I did so, and listened to the routine questioning of the jury, in which the hearing master informed them there would be no adversarial cross-examination but only testimony carefully coached and guided by the assistant district attorney. (He didn’t use precisely those words.) If any “interested parties” -- which he defined as family members -- had questions, they could submit them in writing, and the hearing master would decide whether they got asked.
(In the 1999 coroner’s inquest into the wrongful shooting death of the unarmed Ron Perrin at the hands of Metro Officer Bruce Gentner, for instance, the Perrin family wanted Gentner asked if he was on steroids the night of the unprovoked shooting, or if he ever used steroids. The hearing master refused to ask the question. The Metropolitan Police Department ended up settling a civil suit in that one by paying Perrin’s family $325,000 of your tax money.)
'THE COP ALWAYS WALKS'
On Thursday, the hearing master asked “Is there anyone here who has any information that would be relevant to this case?” creating the impression that the general public was being asked to come forward if anyone had information which the D.A. lacked or seemed disinclined to present. More on that sham, shortly.
This was followed by the Hearing Master James Ordowski’s (I had to call the coroner’s office to learn his name, despite having been there in person) de rigueur insistence that the jury must agree in advance to “render a vote” based not merely on the evidence but also on “the instructions that I will give you at the conclusion of this matter.”
This is precisely the nonsense -- defying such court decisions as U.S. vs. Moylan, 1969, and U.S. vs. Dougherty, 1972 -- that led the foreman of the jury that cleared Bruce Gentner in the fatal 1999 shooting of an unarmed man to say he tried to attach to the jury’s verdict a statement advising police not to return the officer to the streets.
The foreman of that jury, Mark LePage, said at the time that officer Gentner went too far when he shot John Perrin, that “We all had reservations about what had happened,” but that the judge’s instructions led jurors to believe “We couldn’t convict him. ...
“The way the system is now, the cop always walks,” said Mr. LePage, at the time. “I think you need to change the law because it is wrong.”
About 10:15 Thursday morning they finally got the video feed into room 16-D working, so the eight of us in the “overflow room” could see as well as hear the proceedings. The hearing master was seated in the judge’s seat and appeared to be wearing a blue robe, like a judge. And -- lo and behold -- there were empty seats in room 16-C. More than eight of them.
When the jury had been chosen and the hearing master called a break, I went back to the doors of courtroom 16-C and asked to be admitted.
“I told you; go next door,” responded Bailiff K.P. Ross, a large man with a mustache, a shaved-bald head, and what appeared to be a Glock .40 on his hip. He was not real pleasant about it.
“But I can see there are empty seats in there,” I said. “I’d like to sit in the actual hearing room. Isn’t it open to the public?”
“This is not open to the public,” Bailiff Ross replied.
“You’re telling me this inquest is not open to the public?”
“This is not open to the public,” he repeated.
Bailiff Ross was then joined by Sgt. R. Wright, whose head is also shaved bald, hairlessness apparently being a major fashion statement among the bailiffs these days.
“This is not open to the public,” Sgt. Wright agreed.
“You’re sure it’s not open to the public?” I asked, incredulous.
“This is not open to the public and we’re not going to debate it,” responded Sgt. Wright.
Both men wore black semi-auto handguns, prominently displayed, and both positioned themselves to block my entry. I drew the conclusion that the proceedings were not open to the public.
Outside the closed courtroom during the break I spotted Review-Journal reporter Omar Sofradzija, who was wearing a white, court-issued “Media” badge. He told me I could probably “go downstairs” and get one, as well. Omar was trying to be helpful, but by following such “routine procedures” members of the press inoculate themselves against seeing how inaccessible such “administration of justice” is to a plain old member of the public.
I’m a middle-aged man, for whom the 440 is no longer a “dash.” I was wearing a necktie and dress slacks, I was polite and civil; I’d been through the metal downstairs detectors, twice. To whom did the two hairless bailiffs think I -- or any other member of “the people” who went to the considerable expense and inconvenience of attending -- was a danger?
And what was the significance of hearing master Ordowski asking, as part of his dog-and-pony show, whether any members of the general public sitting in the audience might have additional information not likely to be presented by the D.A. ... when in fact that room was “not open to the public,” despite available empty seats, an edict enforced by large men with guns who physically stood in the way of any “badgeless” person trying to enter?
I returned to the “overflow room” and watched on television as the district attorney led the late Amir Crump’s girlfriend, Geri Gonzado, through her tearful testimony about the events of Feb. 1. A box of Kleenex sits ready to hand at the witness box. She used it.
I don’t mean to make light of what Ms. Gonzado has been through. The question is whether her testimony was part of a carefully stage-managed show in which neither the deceased Amir Crump’s family nor their attorney is allowed to cross-examine witnesses (they’re not), and where members of the public weren’t even allowed to be present in the room. (We weren’t.)
IS IT REALLY 'FOR THE PEOPLE'?
As I left, I stopped in the Justice Center Cafe, just behind the information desk where the lady had told me there was “nowhere in the building” to get change. I asked the cashier if she could give me quarters for a dollar bill. She politely did so. In fact, the folks in the cafe were the friendliest, most courteous people I’d run into all day. I passed on the chicken salad sandwich, identified on the menu board as “The Stool Pigeon.”
Immediately outside the cafe -- 13 steps from the information desk -- I used the ATM to withdraw a 20 dollar bill. I then walked 39 paces from the desk where the woman had told me “nowhere in the building” could I get change for the parking meters outside. Inserting my 20-dollar bill in the post office stamp machine, I bought a book of stamps for $7.80 and received change of 12 dollars in one-dollar coins. Yes, they’re accepted in the parking meters.
Justice Center insiders doubtless know about these handy sources of coinage. The advice that it’s available “nowhere in the building” is reserved “for the people.”
Outside, as I left, a blue-uniformed Las Vegas parking authority agent pulled out what I at first took for a golf club, and used it to chalk the left rear tire of a car legally parked at the “multi-bay” meters, obviously intending to return and ticket the car for exceeding the four-hour maximum should the owner avail himself of the lunch hour to rush out and pump in another six bucks in coins.
D.A.s and hearing masters and cops face no such inconveniences, of course. They all have private, tax-paid, assigned parking. Such treatment is only “for the people.”
I was unable to reach County Coroner P. Michael Murphy by telephone Thursday afternoon. I did, however, manage to reach Michael Sommermeyer, the public information officer for the regional justice center. I asked him why the hearing room was not open to the public, even though there were empty seats.
“There’s an overflow room which is opened to the public. If you have a question you’ll have to talk to the coroner.
“It’s open to the public if you have an assigned seat. We actually have seats in there for the media. Yeah, there’s empty seats in there. ... We do have a couple courtrooms on the lower floors that are a little bigger but then they don’t have jury boxes.”
Just 46 seats for the public, all assigned in advance, an arrangement which no one publicized, and of which no one warned me when I called the coroner’s office twice in recent weeks, asking about the time and place?
“Yeah, and that’s why we come up with ways to show it on television, in this case live on Channel 19,” Mr. Sommermeyer replied. “I guess you could move it to a whole 'nother location but then you’d have a security concern. We’d have to secure two locations.”
“I don’t know, that’s just what we do. We secure things. We don’t know what might happen. It’s a volatile situation. You don’t know what anyone might do in the situation, so you’re always going to have a security element. That’s part of our plan whenever we do anything.”
Mr. Sommermeyer said he “found it interesting” the way I kept using the phrase “not open to the public.” I read him from my notes how many times the armed deputies blocking the door had told me the room and the inquest were “not open to the public.”
“It is open to the public in the sense that you can sit in the other room and watch it” (on closed-circuit TV), he replied. “If you don’t have a badge I guess in that sense it’s not open to the public, it’s only open to designated guests of the coroner’s office.”
Within the hour, Mr. Sommermeyer called me back. This time he also had Michael Ware, the assistant court administrator and the fellow in charge of courthouse security, on the line.
“I can tell you the reality,” Mr. Ware said. “If they used that choice of words it was a bad choice of words. They know and we all know it is open to the public. What we did is we opened an overflow room next door. ...
“There were a lot of people looking in there and they did see the open seats,” Mr. Ware explained. “There were people who didn’t show up and people said, ‘Well, these seats are open, can’t we sit here?’ and those were designated seats. We did set some seats aside for Metro, for the family, for the D.A. The people were not in their seats but we didn’t want them to show up and find their seats occupied.
“The reality is this; it was not closed to the public. There are 46 seats in there if we seat up to the fire code and we had them all assigned. ... We also have a security concern so there’s a security component ... It’s a matter of the safety of the staff and the visitors. ...
“I’m telling you that was a mistaken poor choice of words on their part because it was absolutely open to the public, we don’t have the legal authority to close it to the public. I think they knew in fact it was open to the public but they used a poor choice of words when they meant ‘We have assigned seats in here.’ I’m going to go down there right now and correct that verbiage that they used to you.”
Yeah. But you know what?
It wasn’t open to the public.