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Melinda Ruley

Court of innocents



Five-year-old Taj sits on a hard courtroom bench, waiting for his daddy's appearance in Wake County District Court. In one hand Taj holds the wadded remains of a corn muffin; in the other, a tattered Big Bird doll crowned with a single, dejected feather. All around him, people mill about, talking to prosecutors and defense lawyers, rifling through court files. Taj kicks his feet, humming softly to himself.

His dad sits about seven rows ahead, just behind a line of defense lawyers waiting for their cases to be called. He's a big man in a fruit-punch colored suit and tiny gold earrings. His shoulders are enormous, his head shaved and buffed to a dull luster. He's a dead ringer for Mr. Clean, re-invented as a black rap artist, except that he's currently facing charges of assault on a female. The alleged victim is his girlfriend, Taj's mom.

Every few minutes, Taj sits up straight to get a glance of his daddy. When he does this his little neck pops up out of his shirt, revealing a coffee-colored birthmark the shape of a comma. Once or twice, he is obliged; his dad gives him a smile and holds his hand up like a gun and gives Taj a little pretend shooting action. Which makes Taj giggle. Whenever Taj giggles, his mama, who's sitting between her son and her mother, snakes a hand out and smacks him on the side of his head. Taj's mama wears a smart, faux-zebra-skin blouse and a slim black skirt. Her hair is pulled back in skull-hugging waves and flared out in the back in a kind of spoiler. Her mother, Taj's grandmother, wears a burgundy sweat suit and carries a pocketbook the size of an economy car, from which she pulls tissues and industrial-sized bottles of hand lotion. When Taj squirms, she leans over to give him a cough drop and hush him up. Taj worries the cough drop for a while, then resumes humming to himself and sneaking glances at his daddy.

It's calendar call; the assistant district attorney yells out the names of defendants and they, or their lawyers, yell back their pleas: not guilty, guilty, guilty with a reason. Lawyers, defendants, victims and witnesses pack the courtroom. One of the prosecutors walks back and bends down to whisper with Taj's mom and grandmother, then walks Taj's mom out in the hallway to talk.

Taj sits up straight and watches his daddy closely. "Maw-maw," he says, "is my daddy going to jail?"

"Baby, I don't know what they'll do with him."

"Because he hurt Mama?"

"Mmm hmmm."

"Can we bring him fried eggs in jail?"

"No sir."

"Because he been so bad?"

"Mmm hmmm."


I met Taj and Denise some years back, on assignment in Wake County District Court in downtown Raleigh. At the time, more than 300 cases moved through the district courts every day. They included traffic violations, drunk driving, simple assault, trespassing and domestic cases.

I remember three things in particular about those weeks watching defendants move in and out of court. The first was the public revelation of personal lives, the grudges aired, secrets divulged, accusations leveled. One woman, charged with hitting her husband with a candlestick during an argument, walked past him after testifying, gave him a heated look and whispered, "I just needed to get my hands on something bigger than your weeny little thing."

The second was the great storytelling. One defendant, explaining why he had drunk so much before getting behind the wheel, told the judge he's been driving along, "minding my own bidnis," when "some punk rocker with half his head shaved jumped in the back of my truck." The man paused to give the judge a look, like it's a sad world what lets folks with half-shaved heads run loose. "He busted out my window and ran off," he said. "I got mad and went in a bar and drank three beers."

The third thing I remember is how many children were present in the courtroom. Babies thrown over shoulders, toddlers wandering the aisles, school-aged children doing homework in the hallways outside the courtrooms. The dignity of the courtroom stood little chance against tree-top shrieking and diaper emergencies. I remember watching one lawyer make a paper airplane for a little boy; another scraped baby spit-up off her leather pumps with a nail file.


Denise is 12, going on 25. She hangs out next to the fountain on Fayetteville Street Mall, just outside the county courthouse. Her aunt, she says, is inside sorting out various traffic violations. Denise, meanwhile, is waiting outside, babysitting her sister Patty. She's out of school on account of it's a teacher's workday, and she is so bored.

To emphasize her pain, Denise stands up and bends backward to let the tips of her hair touch the water. The move is part yoga, part adolescent exasperation. Below the navel Denise is still a little girl, knobby-kneed, with Mickey Mouse sneakers. Elsewhere she blooms. She wears pale green eye shadow the exact color of her eyes, apricot blush and teased-up bangs. The rest of her pale orange hair is brushed back over her shoulder blades. She has a Cher-like habit of using the tips of her fingers to flip her hair away from her face.

Patty, the baby, is only a month old; Denise, sitting up straight again, jiggles the stroller and--no kidding--hums the theme from Bonanza. "I used to fall asleep with it on the TV when I was a baby," she explains. Patty is oblivious, tucked into a lemon-yellow blanket, blissed out, sleeping with a newborn's sweating intensity. The two girls live with their aunt, who, Denise says, is pretty cool except for being the "absolute worst driver on the whole planet." Just last year, Denise says, she was in court with her aunt, who tried to get her to testify that she hadn't run a stop light. "I had a sore throat that day," Denise says, "so I just pretended I couldn't talk. But I don't think the judge would have made me anyway."

Denise remembers when she was really little--maybe 7 or 8--she and her cousin James had both had chicken pox and couldn't go to school, so they had to go to court the day James' dad, Denise's uncle, had to appear on charges of trespassing and drunk-and-disorderly conduct. According to Denise, her uncle got drunk and broke into a power substation near their house and the police had to come and drag him out after neighbors heard him in there singing.

"It was bad bad bad for James," Denise says. "I could tell he was embarrassed about his dad, especially in front of all those people. He was quiet and off to himself for a long time after that. He never would talk about it."


Today, children whose parents must appear in downtown Raleigh courts have the option of going to the Courthouse KidsCenter on S. Salisbury Street. Attendance is free. The center, begun as a public-service project by the Wake County Bar Association, and operated by the Wake County YWCA, opened nine months ago. Lawyers have contributed $80,000 to it and more events are planned to keep the center open.

So far, Courthouse KidsCenter is the only day-care center of its kind in North Carolina. Elsewhere, children still routinely accompany their parents on court dates. The lawyer I watched scraping spit-up off her shoes was matter-of-fact about the distraction. "A lot of these parents don't have the money to pay for day care," she said. "So it's an obstacle you learn to live with." She went on to say that parents have different philosophies about exposing their children to court. Some were ashamed and would send their kids out in the hallway with a relative when it was time to testify. Others, she said, were indifferent to the impact of the proceedings on their children. One mother, she recalled, told her 5-year-old son to listen carefully while his daddy explained why he hadn't paid child support. "She told him he'd be up there doing the same thing one day, because he was just like his daddy," she said. "It can get kind of harsh."

Another thing that struck me was that these children were watching their parents be held accountable for their actions--something children rarely get to see. The younger ones were more or less oblivious, but many of the older children understood, and reacted to, watching their parents get flustered, embarrassed or angry. One little girl, watching from the bench as her mother testified about forging checks, stamped her foot and called out to the prosecutor not to be so mean. Another little boy sat astonished as his dad, a bullish, big-talking man clearly unacquainted with higher forms of authority, was put on probation.

Afterward, the man's defense lawyer told me he hated the thought of his client's son watching. "This kid probably has one authority figure in his life," he said. "His mom isn't around, his teacher has already labeled him as trouble. His father may not be my choice of authority figure, but there he is and his kid looks up to him. After today there'll be that little chink in his dad's armor."


Not long ago, working on a story in the Durham County courthouse, I notice a young woman in the hallway, humming and jiggling a stroller with her toe. The gesture seems familiar, as does the tune, a staccato reminiscent of sunsets and big men wearing chaps. I walk closer and sure enough, it's Denise. She isn't knobby-kneed any more, but her hair is the same pale orange, tied back in a ponytail.

Denise has no memory of talking to me years ago, but she admits she spent a lot of time "bored crazy" on Fayetteville Street Mall, so "anything was possible." The baby in the stroller is Denise's son, a black-haired kid with solemn gray eyes and a judicious scowl.

I catch them just before Denise's boyfriend is scheduled to appear on charges of stealing a bicycle, which Denise says he only borrowed from a neighbor, but the neighbor freaked. She says it's the second time she's been in court with him this year, but that last time she had to stay in the hallway the whole time because the baby wouldn't stop crying. "The judge was giving me these looks," she says, "and I thought maybe I'd prejudice him if I stayed in there."

I ask her if she plans to try again today and she says yes, the baby was much calmer. "It's like anything else with babies," she says. "He'll get used to it." EndBlock

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