Thursday, October 8, 2009

Amen to that

This column, published while I was out of town attending a Trial Advocacy course in South Carolina as a faculty member, expresses what I could not have said any better.

Why we need a more secure justice center and why it seems that this issue even became an "issue".

County needs a more secure justice center

- The Herald-Zeitung

About 30 years ago, I was among reporters covering a murder trial between rival street gangs. The courtroom, located in a Midwestern, auto plant city, was filled with two families, both of which over that past couple of years had lost sons to gang violence.

We had been told to sit on the front row directly behind the prosecutor’s table. The sheriff told me and the other reporters before we entered the courtroom that he could not guarantee our safety.

Uniformed deputies stood at each door and at either end of the judge’s podium.

No one was smiling.

Each family was linked somehow to a different gang. If my memory serves me correctly, one family had two sons on trial for murder. The other family had buried two young men who were cousins. The defendants were charged with their murders.

About an hour earlier, the bailiff had announced that the jury had reached a verdict. I remember, for some reason, the time. My watch had about 11 p.m. The jury had deliberated most of the day and the judge refused to let them leave for the evening, fearing intimidation or worse.

With the announcement of a verdict, everyone had been asked to leave the courtroom and the courthouse. Deputies with shotguns stood between the families as we all waited in the courtyard. After other deputies had checked the restrooms and courtroom for hidden weapons, everyone was patted down as they re-entered the third-floor courtroom.

Though some of the details of the case have faded, the screams of jubilation and wails of grief that simultaneously pierced through that courtroom as the guilty verdicts were announced will stay with me forever, as will the vulnerability that I felt that night.

Whenever I listen to or read about the opponents to a new justice center who say these security issues are overblown or insignificant, I think about that night.

Comal County needs a more secure justice center.

Rather than questioning the need for such a structure, residents should focus on ensuring that current government officials do not compromise the security measures of the design.

Also, the ages of some of justice center opponents are an ironic part of this debate.

Several of the most outspoken critics of the proposed justice center are over the age of 65. Because of the tax freeze for property owners over 65 in Comal County, they would not pay any additional taxes when a new justice center is built.

Maybe we should question whether this debate is really about the need for a new justice center or more about the need to create a hot-button political issue for next year’s Republican primary race for county judge.