Inside The Courts: The People

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If you were to wander into Bronx criminal court on almost any weekday, one of the first things you'd notice is the people--it's crowded. Hundreds and hundreds of them milling around looking for their lawyers, courtrooms or loved ones. It is a sad fact of criminal court that, because of the sheer volume, some judges, lost in the daily routine of processing cases, fail to appreciate the people appearing before them. I was sitting in a courtroom the other day--crowded with defendants and lawyers when I saw an example of this--involving a defendant who was deaf.

Everything went fine at first. The defense lawyer had obviously done his job and it seemed clear that all sides had worked out a deal that involved pleading guilty to a lesser non-criminal offense. The lawyer explained the plea, the Assistant DA consented, the kid's lawyer smoothly plead him guilty, the sign language interpreter's crisp and graceful gestures capturing every nuance of the proceeding.

Having entered the plea, it was time for the Judge to get involved. Young Man he intoned, you've gotten quite a break here . The interpreter's hands fluttered and the kid nodded Now I'm warning you The judge trailed off ... staring at the kid trying to catch his eye. The kid, of course, was alertly watching the hands of the interpreter.

Look at me the Judge said as the interpreter signed and the kid leaned toward her his eyes fixed even more intently on her hands, as if wondering why he needed to pay even closer attention I said LOOK AT ME YOUNG MAN the Judge demanded, the sign language interpreter's gestures now giving way to a kind of pointing --both index fingers out, elbows working overtime like the guys with the glowsticks who stand on the tarmac in front of airplanes. She's clearly trying to faithfully sign look at me while conveying that he should be looking at the judge, not at her.

Whatever she does works perfectly, and shwoop, the kids locks eyes on the Judge who, now satisfied that he's not being disrespected continues with his lecture. As I said young man, this court is giving you a chance don't blow it . The kid is still dutifully staring at the judge, he has no reaction whatsoever. Now you understand you're not going to have a criminal record as a result of this plea The kid continues to stare right at the Judge, his eyes are wide and he seems to be trembling just a little. He's not getting a word of what's going on, and Judge Bruce is getting agitated. He doesn't get that the kid is deaf and, he's getting frustrated that the kid isn't being deferential in the way the judge is used to.

The whole situations seems surreal and it feels like its beginning to spin out of control, and I'm thinking that I should stand up from the benches in the back and explain, when the kids lawyer finally interrupts: Judge he says and then again Judge..,my client is deaf! He doesn't real lips He needs to look at the sign language interpreter. The kid is still staring dutifully at the Judge, waiting for something to happen. Look at her the Judge commands, while the kid continues to stare at him blankly. Look at HER he says again, raising his voice slightly as if a change in volume might make a difference. It doesn't, and finally his lawyer taps the kids shoulder and gently points to the interpreter who is making a beckoning gesture palms up, fingers wagging. The kid, mesmerized again by the clarity of her hands nods slightly as if to say ok I'm back'

The judge looks down from the bench and takes a deep breath: you can step out Sir he says. And then nodding sagely at the kid as if he's privy to their little secret: I think you know you know what I mean

Next case please