I was young then, still working for the wire service, still lying about the degree from Temple. Still getting away with it. The stuff I covered was mostly routine. The magistrates' hearings were still held in the police stations then and they could be fun. Dropping into police stations at any time of day or night, never knowing what you might run into, I enyoyed that. I especially liked Philadelphia courtrooms. I'd been in courtrooms in other cities and except for New York I'd never found them as entertaining as the day in, day out stuff in Philly. Not the high profile cases where everybody has to follow strict protocol, observing proper procedure and so forth. That kind of thing does get tedious and drags on forever. I enjoyed the assembly line --bing, bing, get'm out.
When I wasn't on assignment as on this particular morning I liked to get breakfast at the old Horn and Hardardt's on Market Street, the one diagonally across from city hall, down the stairs, below the street. That was a great place to eavesdrop. Most of the city hall personnel could be found there early in the morning. Bailiffs, detectives who were testifying, defendants on bail, even a couple of judges. Also there were usually two or three politicians, ward leaders and such. I'd find a newspaper guy I knew, join him at his table and catch whatever was going on around us.
The subject all around us that morning was the heat. Not the cops -- the weather. When conversation gets down to the weather it's time for me to leave. Which I did and walked across the street to the courtyard in time to see a sheriff's van pulling up to let prisoners out.
In those days -- back in the 'fifties -- the van was just a black iron box on wheels. Old timers still called it the Black Maria (rhymes with hiya). That was a holdover from the real old days when the vans were horse drawn.
They parked near the rattley old elevator at the back of city hall. From there they would take the prisoners up to the sixth or seventh floor for their trials. I'd seen it all before but decided to watch a while and see if anybody notorious came out of the box. The driver was a red-haired, freckled kid from up in my old neighborhood in Germantown. Brogan. He went to the back to unlock the door as the other guy, a husky Italian, slightly older, stood off to the side to watch for funny moves. Both their blue uniform shirts were wet already and their faces dripped perspiration. Brogan had sweat dropping from his eyebrows into his eyes. He used the shoulders of his shirt to wipe them.
Both the deputies knew me to see. They nodded and kept their eyes on the job. Brogan, now holding the door open, yelled, "Jackson! Marvin Jackson, Junior!" When there was no response he called louder, "Jackson! Marvin Jackson, Junior!" From inside a deep, sullen voice said, "you got us cuffed."
"Ah, for God's sake. Sullivan," Brogan said, "I forgot." Turning to me he said, "Sullivan likes his guys cuffed all the way. They say he stands at a window up there watching."
"You're kidding," I said.
Again he yelled, "Marvin Jackson, Junior! Jimmy Jackson! Donald Brooks!" He smiled at his partner, then at me. "King Edward Bell!"
Slowly, languidly, the men appeared, stepping carefully, not to jostle each other. Tempers were sensitized by the baking ride up from Moyamensing.
"Come on down!" Brogan said, smiling.
No one needed directions; they knew the way.
When the elevator clanked and thumped to a stop and the doors opened two black deputies stood ready inside. "Get'm up there," one said, "Sullivan wants to get out early today."
"Can I ride with you guys?" I asked.
Brogan said, "newspaper guy."
The deputies inside shook their heads no. No surprise.
The elevator clanked away.
By the time I took the long way around and was walking to seven-fourteen where these guys were going to be tried they had already been through the bull-pen and were coming out into the corridor, quickly, a deputy front and back. Suddenly the man in front, Marvin Jackson, Junior, stopped abruptly, causing the others to collide, grumbling, cursing. "Fucks a'matter 'thew, man?" someone said.
"Mama!" the boy said. "Mama, what you doin' here?"
The relationship was unmistakeable except for the woman's gold-rimmed glasses and her soft smile, a stark contrast with his hardened features and his face now contorted in bewilderment.
"I'm gonna take you home, honey."
"Mama, I'm not goin' home, I still got time to do."
"You can't talk to him now," a deputy said.
"Somebody called me this mornin', tell me come down here to take you home. You goin' home."
"That was a mistake, Mama, I'm not goin' home, I'm gettin' more time!"
"I'm sorry," the deputy said, "you can't talk to him now." He took the boy's elbow and led the group into the courtroom. They filed into the front row, a deputy standing on each end.
Marvin Jackson twisted to see his mother, two rows behind him, smiling.
The room was nearly filled with spectators. There were a few reporters, witnesses and people essential to the business at hand. But most were just the regular crowd who had the time and proclivity to come in on a business day and delight in the comedy and tragedy of the trials.
"All rise!" The courtroom clerk entered from the right of the bench and chanted the ritual, "oyay, oyay, oyay," while the others present, official and unofficial, stood reverently, absent-mindedly or in fear. He finished his recital with a flourish, calling out, "...the honorable Francis X. Sullivan presiding."
Francis X. Sullivan, a mean son of a bitch; local hero; hanging judge. He rode in every Saint Patrick's Day parade, standing in an open convertible while the mobs on the sidewalks cheered and applauded. A charter member of the Ancient Order Of Hibernians and the Irish-American Society, he held offices in each and was highly respected in the Knights Of Columbus.
Magically, he appeared behind the bench -- didn't seem to enter -- just appeared.
"Be seated!" he boomed. Despite his robe's being inside out, its shagy inner seams visible to all, and the fact that it had just been pulled together, unbuttoned, this old man was imposing, commanding. His thin arms and long, narrow hands poked and flapped like disjointed sticks out of grotesquely oversized sleeves. His name and reputation were his shield. If another man might have appeared ludicrous so garbed Francis X. Sullivan stood in no such danger.
The courtroom was silent.
"Good morning, your honor," came a duet from the assistant district attorney and the court clerk.
"Good -- morning," bellowed the judge, grinning, robust, "let's have a cus--tomer!"
The spectators nodded, some chuckled. Judge Sullivan could be counted on for a few laughs. The prosecutor smiled.
On the days they worked together this d.a. and judge were a formidable team. Francis X. Sullivan presiding, Dean Wright representing the commonwealth. Together they chilled the hearts of the accused.
"King Edward Bell," the clerk called, "come forward."
As a deputy worked at removing a handcuff from the defendant's wrist the judge said, "they better get some air-conditioning in here or Graterford won't be able to hold all the ten-to-twenties. There are guys doing ten-to-twenty over there who might have got one-to-two if this place was air-conditioned." At this the crowd shook with delight. But if the heat really caused the judge any discomfort it wasn't visible.
King Edward Bell, a tall, chubby faced, dark brown youth stood at the rail facing the judge.
Back then, in these routine trials, they dispensed with the witness chair and none of the parties stepped beyond the stout rail separating the spectator area from the bench.
"You a king, Bell?" the judge asked.
"That's good. I wouldn't want to send a king to the penitentiary. Weren't you here last week?"
"Why are you back this week?"
"Judge your honor sir," the judge assisted. The crowd tittered.
Prosecutor Wright interrupted, "your honor deferred adjudication here. We had to hold Mister Bell in county prison until..."
"I know, Mister Wright, just having a little fun. Help Mister Bell loosen up. Did we get the ticket?"
"Yes, your honor."
"King Edward Bell, you know what you can get for marijuana possession? At the state level I can give you two to four years. Where you from, Bell?"
"Mississippi, your honor, sir." Giggles from the citizens.
"Yes, your honor, sir."
"If I give you a ticket to Picayune, Mississippi, will you go there?"
"Yes, your honor, sir."
To a policeman in the back of the courtroom the judge said, "taxi ready?" and nodded and sent Bell away.
"Yes, sir, your honor, sir, thank you, sir," said King Edward Bell who was already forgotten.
Donald Brooks, skin the color of light coffee, with large brown freckles, a Pancho Villa moustache and muscles like a fast welterweight stepped forward. In his beige tank shirt and denim bell bottoms, standing cocky he was quickly sentenced for a string of burglaries. Sullivan had tried him in May.
"Quite a reign of terror you waged on the city there for a while, wasn't it, Brooks?"
"I made 'm work."
"It's over now, isn't it?"
"Guess we'll have to wait and see."
"Fifty-eight burglaries. Guilty on all of them. Can you wait twenty-five years? Twenty-five to fifty."
"What d' ya say we flip for it, judge? Double or nothin'."
"Fifty to a hundred. Want to flip again?"
Brooks's mouth hung open as he was led away. He turned to look back at the judge who paid him no attention.
Jimmy Jackson was charged with possession, use and sale of heroin. When he was called forward he tried to rise from his seat and his knees began to buckle. His attorney, assigned from the Defenders Association, rushed to assist him. After some whispered conversation with the lawyer he was brought forward. The lawyer kept a loose grip on Jackson's bicep. Judge Sullivan, however, insisted the man stand on his own. He didn't want the lawyer arousing pity for his client.
"Well," said the judge, "here's something a little more serious than Mary Jah-wannah possession. Possession and distribution of heroin?"
"And use, your honor," the defender said. "Your honor, I'd like at this time to request a continuance."
"A little late for that, isn't it, counsel?"
"I wasn't aware of this defendant's physical condition, your honor. The state of his health..."
"Has been well attended to by the county for three months."
Jackson was of less than medium height and slight of build. On his face was a strange expression of sympathy. He looked toward the courtroom staff as if to say, "don't worry, it's all right."
As soon as the judge had brushed aside the motion for a continuance the prosecutor established that on a given night a woman neighbor of Jackson's had glanced through his open door and seen him lying in a pool of blood. Police came and found a small amount of heroin on his person. The assumption had been that Jackson was dealing the drug and a "client" had, using blunt force, robbed him, taking a large amount of heroin and overlooking the smaller one.
"Your honor," the callow attorney continued, "mister Jackson had been under interrogation for three days concerning another case of which he has no knowledge."
"That has nothing to do with this case," snapped the d.a.
"Your honor, I respectfully request..."
"I respectfully request that counsel keep his mouth shut," the judge said. He held up his hand for silence as he fastened his attention on a courtroom window. From his height he had a clear view of the courtyard below. "Guy selling popsicles in the courtyard. Maybe we could get him up here. Maybe a popsicle would perk Jackson up. Want a posicle, Jackson?"
"Your honor," the defender pleaded, "if I had known my client was in the condition he's in..."
Judge Sullivan swiveled his chair around so that his back was to the courtroom and its inhabitants.
"When I saw his condition I assumed... I cancelled witnesses, your honor..."
The defendant's head hit the floor with a loud crack. In his intensity the lawyer hadn't noticed the man fainting. The judge faced the courtroom and signalled a deputy who left and returned with a doctor who administered salts. He was quckly followed by two men with a stretcher who carried Jackson away.
"Continuance granted," the judge said. "Bring him back in September."
The clerk called, "Marvin Jackson, Junior! Jackson!" In a softer tone, he said, "come forward."
"Any relation to jimmy?" asked the judge.
"No, your honor, no relation," answered the ADA.
"Oh, well," said the judge, "I'm sure he's from just as fine stock. You won't faint on us, will you Jackson?"
Marvin Jackson stood where the other defendants had stood, close to the heavy hardwood rail. He said nothing but faced the bench squarely. The judge in turn perused the papers on his bench. "Fill me in, Mister Wright?" he said. His eyes moved from the papers to the ADA to the defendant.
"Mister Jackson is now serving concurrent sentences providing a minimum of six years and a maximum of twenty years. He was sentenced on charges of armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. He has three years served."
"And he's in here now on an old charge that just caught up with him."
"Yes, your honor, he was implicated in another robbery that took place before he received his present sentence."
"He's got six to twenty years and he's here on a new charge? Well that isn't fair. It doesn't give me room to flex my muscles." He made boxing motions with his bony fists. "They're not even giving me room to move around here. Are there witnesses?"
"Yes, your honor." At the ADA's nod an elderly couple walked from a rear seat and were sworn in as Seymour and Gladys Margolis. Mister Margolis told the court that he and his wife, on the night in question, had been to a downtown movie theater and were walking to the subway when three boys blocked their path. One of them, indicating Jackson, drew a revolver and the others relieved the Margolises of money and jewelry. They ignored Mrs. Margolis's pleas not to take her wedding ring and when the old man's ring wouldn't come off one of them shouted, "use the knife!" But they saw a police car cruise by at the end of the block, on Broad Street, and ran. None was apprehended until this March when Mister Margolis spotted one of them on the street and called police. He was arrested and he implicated Mister Jackson and the others.
"And here we are," said the judge.
"Yes, your honor."
Just then the most mournful sob I think I ever heard turned my attention and the attention of all in the room to the lady with the wire-rimmed glasses in the third row. It seemed filled with all the postponed despair of a lifetime. With all the eyes in the courtroom on her she cried, "they told me he was goin' home!"
"The mother?" the judge asked the ADA.
The prosecutor nodded.
"Who told you that, madam?" asked the judge.
"I don't know. I got a phone call this mornin'. A man say 'be in court today if you want to go home with Marvin.' He say Marvin goin' home today."
There's no way to know but the thought struck me then that one of Jackson't crime buddies wanted to get Mrs Jackson in court as a threat to Jackson. So Jackson could see her out there in the open, vulnerable, defenseless.
Sullivan seemed, suddenly, to have lost all his starch. He looked, now, old. And tired.
"Mister Margolis," the judge said, "what is your age?"
"Eighty next month."
"Your wife's age?"
Judge Sullivan sent the Margolises back to their seats.
The judge fixed his eyes on the bare marble floor in front of the bench, his hands folded. Finally glancing at the defendant only his eyes moved, focused there for a second, then on the prosecutor. Then he turned his full attention to the anguished mother.
"Madam, I'm sorry for the pain your son has brought to you. It isn't easy for me to sentence these boys. I get them in here every day, every week. They all have mothers who sit out there and cry, in mortal pain. Most of them anyway. Your boy didn't pull the trigger. This time. Some do. But for a passing police car he might have. Kids! They go around sticking guns in people's faces, taking their money, crawl in people's windows, beat them to death when they get caught in there... We let a boy go here not too long ago, before he'd served all his time, and you know how grateful he was? A week later he raped a seventy-five-year-old lady in her kitchen, a neighbor! Madam... I sentence some of these boys..." He paused for what seemed an awfully long time, then continued..."I sentence some of these boys on my knees! On my knees!"
At this time Marvin Jackson's defender came to life. He tried to raise an objection to these remarks as being prejudicial. At least that was the impression I got.
Sullivan waved it or him away, saying, "never mind that."
Then Dean Wright broke in. "Your honor," he said, "if your honor pleases, in view of the heavy sentencing already imposed on this defendant, and the extreme unlikelihood of his obtaining parole in the future, I'd like to recommend a guilty verdict with a sentence to run consecutively with his present terms."
"That would be tantamount to no additional sentencing, Mister Wright." Sullivan laced his fingers and almost rested his chin on his hands, his face incredulous. "No additional sentencing, Mister Wright? None?"
"Well, your honor..."
"Is this the same Dean Wright who once told the court, this court, that if the judge, this judge, freed a certain defendant he'd never allow his wife and children to leave the house again?"
The spectators were relaxed again, smiling.
However, the ADA, also smiling, stood firm. "It's likely, your honor, that any parole board will require Jackson to serve his entire sentence. You know that it's almost guaranteed."
"Don't tell me what I know."
"Your honor's recommendations are always followed."
The judge began to wilt again. His eyes roamed, settling on one face then another. But rather than a judicial pronouncement he said, "some day when I'm dead they'll air condition this place. No additional sentencing? Well, I don't think I can decide this today. I'm going to defer this."
"I know. Bring him back in September."
I think Jackson's lawyer was assuring him that this was best. Probably explaining that the judge would have more latitude without the same spectators and witnesses in court. Certainly better than more sentencing that would run consecutively.
In the middle of the discussion Jackson twisted to see his mother.
By the time I heard the clerk call out that court was adjoruned the judge had already disappeared and the room was empty. I looked for the Margolises but they were gone. The ADA gathered papers and hurried away. The rest of the staff did the same and soon the only people left were the silently still figure of Mrs. Jackson and me. I stood across from the third row where she still sat, dabbing at tears, showing no intention to move.
Leaning in from the aisle I offered her a ride home. She said, "you're very kind, but no, thank you."
"How are you travelling? Are you taking the subway?" I asked her. "I'd feel better if you'd let me take you or walk you someplace." I was still thinking of the possibility of some kind of threat, then the loneliness of the impersonal streets or rails after this ordeal.
Her eyes were fixed on the empty judicial bench. "You're very kind," she said, "but I'm just fine."
She wouldn't even allow me to walk the corridor with her. Not even to the elevator. I watched her walk away and waited, not intending to intrude. The deserted corridor looked long and cold. She looked so small and fragile. So alone.