Author’s Note: Names have been changed or omitted to protect the foolish.
Many people are most accustomed to a grandiose vision of a courtroom, rich mahogany panels, distinguished black-robed judges, lawyers in freshly pressed suits and ties and police officers in crisp class A uniforms. On a daily basis, the reality was something entirely different—especially during the late 60’s and 70’s at the Cook County Criminal Court at 2600 South California on Chicago’s near south side.
Branch 57 was Narcotics Court and most mornings it was a zoo. Preliminary hearings were held here for the overnight arrests. Many of the officers in court had spent the previous hours working, or if not, they were short on sleep, having drawn the short straw on who was going to attend court.
Street uniforms were the order of the day, often soiled and dusty with the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates during a tour of duty on the streets of Chicago. No trials were held here, the judge listened to the circumstances of the arrest and rendered a decision as to whether or not the defendant should be held for trial.
The judge was a character who stood and walked more than he sat. His robe was seldom closed and when he gestured, wildly at times, it would fly open revealing an unkempt open collared shirt. He drank his coffee during the proceedings, but the cup always had a tight lid lest the hot liquid spill while he was flailing his arms.
George Grady, the state’s attorney was a sharp young man who would later also become a judge. He was not afraid to argue his point with great enthusiasm.
He guided one officer through the circumstances of his case:
“What was the nature of the call officer?”
“It was a man with a gun in the pool hall.”
“And will you tell the court what you found when you arrived on the scene?”
“Well we did not find a man with a gun, but we observed the defendant coming out of the men’s room.”
“And then what did you do?”
“We patted down his outer clothing and felt a suspicious bulge in his trouser pocket.”
“And did you have an occasion to determine what the bulge was?” asked Grady.
“”Yes sir,” replied the officer. “It was what is known on the street as a nickel bag of marijuana.”
“The state rests your honor.”
“That’s it?” asked the judge spreading his arms apart. “That’s all you’re going to give me?”
“I said the state rests judge.”
“Then I say no probable cause. That’s an illegal search.”
“Your honor! How can you say that?” responded Grady raising his voice. “They were responding to a man with a gun call!”
“You mean to tell me, Mister Grady, that if the police received a call of a man with a gun in this courtroom, they could search everybody?” The judge was shouting now, walking and waving, his robe flying.
“No, of course not, that’s different.”
“Then tell me Mister Grady,” still shouting. “What’s the difference between this courtroom and a pool hall?”
“Very little your honor—very little!”
The judge stopped in mid stride and whirled to face the state’s attorney. He paused a moment as laughter rippled through the courtroom and then he joined the laughter.
“Point taken Mister Grady, I guess I asked for that, but the case is dismissed.”
* * * *
In another courtroom and defendant had been found guilty of burglary and the judge sentenced him to two years in the Vandalia Correctional Center.
“But your honor,” protested the defendant. “Today is my birthday. It’s not right to sentence someone to prison on their birthday!”
The judge turned to the state’s attorney.
“Is that right? Is today his birthday?”
The state’s attorney paged through the arrest records.
“Yes, your honor, today is his 18th birthday.”
The judge rose. The odd conversation had captured the spectator’s attention. Would the judge even consider modifying the sentence based upon the fact that it was the defendant’s birthday? All eyes were on the judge as, still standing, he leaned over the rail toward the young man and began to sing in a rich baritone:
“Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Two years in Vandalia,
Happy Birthday to you!”
* * * *
It was a summertime homicide trial in the same building. We were on one of the upper floors and the heat was nearly suffocating. Two large fans ran in a vain attempt to cool the participants. I was on the stand and after questions from both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys, the judge stopped me as I was about to step down.
“Be seated detective,” he said. “I want to ask you a question”
I turned in my seat and for the first time I had a full view of him and it was a sight to behold. The judge had hiked his robe up to his waist, rolled his pants above his knees and his socks down to his shoes. His knees were widely spread and he was fanning his lower body with the morning paper.
I don’t remember what his question was, nor do I remember what I answered. But when I returned to my seat and looked back at him, he was a picture of dignity and decorum —at least from the waist up.