Lower courts, high entertainment

For the last week or so I’ve been finding myself sitting in the Norwich City Court. The idea is for me to routinely collect convictions for publication in The Evening Sun. For about fours hours a week, I attend the proceedings and at first I worried if those hours might be spent in boredom. However, after just my first day there it was anything but and wanted to share some of those experiences.

A man charged with possession of crack cocaine stands before the court. During his brief appearance, the prosecution informs the court the man has four prior felony convictions and six prior misdemeanors convictions that “run the gamut” of lower level crimes – including previous assault, DWI and endangering the welfare of a child convictions. He’s served time in county jail and state prison. His rap sheet is purportedly 22 pages in length.

His co-conspirator girlfriend, the ADA says, has nine previous misdemeanor convictions including DWI, possession and bouncing a bad check.

The two were arrested for minor roles involving out of town drugs dealers. Though the other suspects were the main police target, the co-defendant couple had their home searched with a warrant during the investigation leading to the current charges. Two children, 8 and 11, were also in the home and allegedly had access to the crack cocaine.



If you sit in City of Norwich Court long enough, you’ll notice one of the first questions the Honorable Judge James Downey asks most defendants is, “Do you have a job?”

The man says he’s on disability because of a bad hip and hasn’t worked for some time. The woman worked a job for some vague period in 2010, but has been unemployed for several months. The man has no car and tells the judge he’s forced to “walk everywhere.”

“So what we’ve got here is you’re on disability with a bad hip, can’t work, but you’re walking around ‘everywhere’ and getting involved in local drug activity – allegedly of course,” the judge confirms.

There’s another woman who stands before the court and makes no attempt to hide her impatient body language. The ADA says he has to drop a child endangerment charge against her and she pleads guilty to harassment. The woman admits to throwing a cigarette at another person during a party, but instead struck and burned a nearby one-month-old baby.

First ADA Stephen Dunshee remarks, “I don’t have intent judge. I apparently have a case involving a cigarette ricochet.”

The domestic incident also apparently involved a degree of pushing and shoving and the judge takes the opportunity to give some advice.

He tells her that’s what tends to happen to children when they’re exposed to violence among adults. He then asks the employment question.

The answer is basically, “No, I recently had a baby.” The judge sentenced the woman to pay a $120 fine and asks her on how she’ll get the money. After a moment of mixed answers, Downey asks the woman how many bottle deposits are in $120. She shrugs at the judge, prompting him to comment, “Well you should go home and figure it out, your liberty may depend on it.”

Another case seemed to be ordinary. A man charged with growing a small amount of marijuana at his home appeared with a plea arrangement already worked out with prosecutors. The judge added a small condition for him to seek out the services of drug and alcoholic counseling following his plea.

The judge asked the ADA if he had any final comments and he said, “No.” A breath later, the defense attorney also said “No, your honor.” Then the judge makes the statement all judges ask before passing sentence: “(Defendant), the law permits you to make any statements before passing sentence, would you like to make a statement?”

At this point I should explain that in most cases people often mutter the word “no” before the question is even finished.

Instead, the man composed his thoughts for a moment, tilting his head slightly to the floor before raising his glance to the judge.

“There’s actually scientific studies that show marijuana not to be addictive,” he begins. A few minutes later, the man concludes his general argument for the legalization of marijuana and the court absorbs the unexpected response with a few moments of pondered silence. Sitting in the front row of the courtroom, I must admit to being fairly impressed and entertained.

“You see that’s an opinion, it’s not even an opinion the court necessarily disagrees with, but unfortunately we’re here today to uphold the law,” started Downey. “When it comes to your opinion versus the law, the law wins.” The judge engaged the man in a short bout of friendly debate about the topic.

“Would you at least say marijuana is at least as addictive as cigarettes?” asked Downey. The man says no. The judge recommends the defendant share his opinion with the alcohol and drug services and perhaps they would determine he didn’t need counseling.

“Good luck though; you’ll need it,” he said.

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