I submit to you a list of professions where humorous banter is an asset: accountant, car salesman, realtor, dentist, personal trainer, construction worker, civil engineer, dog trainer, photographer, microbiologist, professor, chef, waitress, actor, electrician, plumber, marketing director, novelist, tour guide, magician, landscaper, receptionist, librarian, violinist, glass-blower, zoologist, and garbage man.
I submit to you a list of professions in which humorous banter is a liability: funeral home director, child oncologist, and criminal courts judge.
It’s a Thursday morning and I’m seated in the gallery behind a nervous family of three: a husband and wife in their fifties with their teenager in tow. The husband is boney; his turquoise polo hangs on his frame like it’s a coat rack. The wife is sturdier, her shapely figure filling out a lilac nylon shirt. But emotionally, she’s fragile. She holds her face in her hands, rubbing eyes that seem to have recently cried. Her son slides closer to her, his basketball shorts swish softly on the gallery bench.
He looks at his mother and opens his mouth to speak.
No words come out.
An attorney barks, “My mom’s dream of me having kids is dying.”
Her colleague responds, “In your ovaries!”
Behind the bar, jokes fly, banter volleys, and there’s laughter all around. The clerks conspire to hide their mini-fridge in the jury room when the fire marshal comes. The deputy public defenders kick around sunflower seeds strewn on the court carpet. The bailiffs bemoan the coming earthquake drill, remembering last year’s “clusterfuck.” The deputy district attorneys swivel in their chairs, grunting their disapproval of a task force that keeps changing its name. It’s a frenetic, free-wheeling madhouse.
The proceedings are wrangled by a chief clown, Judge Craig Richman. He smiles and smirks and spews sarcasms from the bench. His face maneuvers under a coarse mat of grey hair. Delicate reading glasses threaten to fall off his nose.
Richman opens with a personal anecdote. “So, I was driving this morning and there was a Tesla on the side of the road. I had to bite my tongue from saying ‘Hey, I got a can of gas for you!’”
The clerk laughs.
The deputy district attorney laughs.
The deputy public defender laughs.
Defendant, Billy Davenport laughs.
He’s accused of human trafficking.
Davenport is tall and trim, wearing a blue county jail jumpsuit. A pair of white, plastic rosary strings hang from his neck. They make a light click-clack when he sways. He’s here today to request that his public defender be removed from the case and replaced with a private attorney. The request is granted but Judge Richman isn’t done with Davenport yet.
“Hey, who do you like in the National League now that the Dodgers are out?”
Davenport mumbles – caught off guard. “Uh…Cardinals.”
Richman presses Davenport for a predicted winner and Davenport announces a Cardinals vs. Yankees World Series with the Yankees snagging the title.
Richman clasps his hands together, reveling in the game. He nods at the court reporter who is typing every word they say. “We’ll order you a transcript so you can’t change your mind.” Davenport chuckles as he is taken back into the inmate holding area.
The conversation turns from baseball to birthdays. It’s Judge Richman’s birthday next Tuesday. He announces that he was born in 1958 and everyone in the court concurs that he is still “so young.” For his birthday, Judge Richman would like to go to a Mexican restaurant. Somewhere where he can get good margaritas. Everyone is invited!
Except Edgar Verduzco – he’s not in court today. His lawyer asks that his pre-trial be scheduled for next week. Verduzco is a now former LAPD officer who stands accused of three counts of murder in an alleged DUI crash. Witnesses say the off-duty officer was driving over 150 mph and hit the breaks seconds before he slammed into another car, which ricocheted into a barrier and exploded, burning a family of three to death.
Moments later Judge Richman is flapping his arms wildly, imitating Public Defender Rubenia Mejia. “You speak with your hands. It reminds me of a televangelist.”
The clerk laughs.
The deputy DA laughs.
Alternate Public Defender Anitra Zobeck furrows her brow. It’s her first time in Department 120 and she’s grappling with the fact that she has entered the twilight zone.
Judge Richman peers down from the bench. “Is something wrong Ms. Zobeck?”
Ms. Zobeck shakes her head. “I’m just trying to figure you out.”
The clerk and Mejia chime in like a chorus.
“Just make him laugh.”
“Or laugh at his jokes.”
It’s simple, really! Just play along.
Zobeck represents Todd Raju who is in court for a progress report after being convicted of a felony DUI. He presents a sealed envelope from his rehabilitation program to the court.
Judge Richman accepts the envelope and handles it with the flourishes of a magician. “I now have a sealed envelope. I am opening the sealed envelope. This is so exciting!”
Richman opens the envelope. Inside is a certificate showing Raju’s completion of his program. He waves it with approval. “Put this on your fridge.”
Raju’s reactions are delayed as he listens to the judge’s antics through a Spanish interpreter. Judge Richman leans forward.
Will the fridge bit land?
Raju cracks a wary smile. Success!
As Raju leaves, Anthony McClain is brought in from the holding cell. He’s small, about 5’5”, with big eyes that look longingly into the gallery.
The woman in lilac shuffles out of her seat and onto the front bench, right behind the public defender. It’s as close as she can get to Anthony, her son.
Anthony McClain stands accused of robbery, assault with a deadly firearm, felon possession of a firearm, and attempted murder. The charges are stacked with gang enhancements. If he’s found guilty on all charges, McClain likely faces a life-sentence. Today his public defender is arguing a 995 motion to dismiss McClain’s charges due to insufficiency of evidence, especially in regard to the gang enhancements. The details of the crime seem muddy. Who attacked whom, which parties were gang affiliated, and whether or not McClain had a gun at all are all called into question. Judge Richman sorts through the cascade of manila folders on his bench and retrieves the paperwork. He glances over the file and shrugs. Motion is dismissed.
McClain’s family slides out off the benches. They stand by the bar watching Anthony disappear into the holding room. They try to hold onto every second that they can see him. The moments don’t last. They spill through their hands like running water.
When the door closes, the family files out of the court hand in hand.
With the McClains out of the court, I’m the only one left in the gallery. Now that I’m a conspicuous observer, Judge Richman calls out from his bench, asking if I’m a reporter. I tell him that I’m a journalist from crimestory.com.
Judge Richman beams. “I’m afraid there’s no crime here.”
Human trafficking, felony DUI, murder, and robbery. I don’t know what to say. So I say nothing.
Judge Richman takes my confusion for shyness. He makes sure I know I’m welcome.
“You can stay. We might break the benches apart and have a barbecue.”