NOVEMBER 6 - NOVEMBER 12
An older black man (45-54 y/o) was arrested and arraigned in Manhattan on a burglary charge for allegedly stealing detergent. Although he had many prior convictions, for the last two decades, they were all for turnstile jumping and misdemeanor drug possession. He has had no convictions over the last three years and lives in supportive housing with a caseworker. Prosecutor requests $50,000 bail, defense requested release (ROR). Judge looks to CASES to see if he’ll qualify for supervised release. Watcher did not see resolution.
Black woman in her early 20s was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest. ADA Schnepf requested $7,500 bail on the assault charge and $1,000 on the misdemeanor because the woman had open cases in two counties on prior assault convictions. Her defense attorney requested the woman be released on her own recognizance (ROR) because the accused has 5 children and lives with her grandmother. Judge Statsinger set $5,000 bail on the assault charge and $500 bail on the misdemeanor.
ADA Schnepf requested $50,000 bond for a Black man charged with assault. Judge Statsinger RORs because the accused waited more than 24 hours to be arraigned because he was in the hospital with a gunshot wound.
Three young Latino men were charged with 2nd degree robbery for stealing a cell phone. ADA requested $10,000 bail for two of the men and $15,000 for the third, who was also arrested for possession of a knife.
ADA asks for $25,000 bail for a young Black trans woman charged with possession of a gravity knife and shoplifting. Judge Thompson set $7,500 bail.
Latinx male facing drug charge. ADA requested $50,000 bail. Accused was deemed low flight risk by CJA risk assessment interview. Judge set bail at $10,000 bond/$7,500 cash.
Proud Boy: In Manhattan, a white man in his 20s was charged with 3rd degree assault and rioting in the 2nd degree for participating in the Park Avenue Proud Boys brawl. ADA Strickland stepped in for this arraignment and requested $5,000 bail. A court watcher notes, "the ADA’s description of facts of the case was bizarrely focused on “unidentified antifa” who refused to identify assailants to police or give their names...for the first 80% of the ADA’s discussion of the facts, I thought the accused was antifa, not a Proud Boy. There was no discussion of what the Proud Boys are (a violent misogynist and white supremacist hate group), but considerable discussion of the fact that antifa members had not been cooperative with police detectives." A private defense attorney argued for ROR on grounds that accused voluntarily surrendered, had family in the court room, and was only being charged with a misdemeanor. Judge Statsinger consented to ROR. A court watcher reflected on the disparities in outcomes in the courtroom: "one case prior, a young Black man had received supervised release for an unlicensed driving charge (and a condescending lecture from Statsinger about how he wasn’t allowed to drive while under supervised release). Bail was set in various other cases with charges far less severe than punching someone in the context of a larger melee sparked by the accused’s group’s white supremacist/misogynist hate speech. Generally, the juxtaposition between the RORed Proud Boy and bail set for other indigent defendants accused of less severe charges was striking and reflected badly on the court."
Cab driver: A young black man with no criminal history in Brooklyn was charged with robbery; a cab driver accused him of stealing $200 at gunpoint. The accused man was arrested at home several hours after the incident. Arresting officers did not find a gun or cash on the man, who claimed he hadn’t stolen cash from the taxi driver at gunpoint– he just hadn't paid for his ride. ADA Cotto requested $15,000 bail. Judge Doherty RORed the man with a lecture about not taking a cab ride if he can’t afford to pay. The public defender explained to court watchers that this kind of case is brought in from time to time: when a cab driver feels that police won’t respond to a report of a customer who hasn’t paid his fare, reporting a theft at gunpoint is a tool to elicit police response. Court watchers ask: But to what end? If police and ADAs are aware that this type of accusation is common, why arrest in the first place, and why ask for such a high bail amount? What if the judge had been less lenient?
College student: In Manhattan, a young Latinx woman’s arraignment for drug possession began with the ADA referring to the wrong docket, while both the judge and PD had misprinted dockets on which information had been cut off the page. The ADA requested $150,000 bail/$72,000 bond, citing “the amount of cocaine.” However, a low CJA score reflected that the accused was a low flight risk and recommended that she be released. According to the public defender, the accused, who is a college student living with her mother, didn't know about the drugs and police did not find money or a scale in her home. The judge set bail at $25,000.
$45 drug sale to undercover cop: A Latinx man was arrested after selling a controlled substance to an undercover cop (buy & bust)—both instances were for $45 or less. ADA requested $50,000 bail. The public defender said the ADA’s “bail request is ridiculous” and pointed out that the accused was deemed a low flight risk and had made all court appearances in a prior case (no conviction). Judge set bail at $10,000.
REFLECTION FROM A WATCHER
Much of my internal monologue as I found my way to the courtroom, sat behind NYPD officers sitting with distressed defendants answering to bench warrants, and began feverishly taking notes to keep up with the remarkably fast-paced casework, was whether I would witness something—anything—that jumped out as glaringly racist or wrong. Would I witness a wrongly-enforced marijuana misdemeanor? A nasty judge who would castigate defendants along socioeconomic divisions? I felt guilty even then, and much more on reflection, about my search—or perhaps even my subconscious desire—for a clear and cartoonish moral system to emerge before me.
But there was no such simplistic reckoning ahead. No one acted out, either in the prosecution or the defense, no voices were raised, no protests stage, few tears openly shed or protests mounted by defendants. But by the end of the three hours, after I had abandoned the naive search for something filmic and morally sharp, I felt a different kind of throbbing pain in the courtroom, having more to do with delineations of class that had made themselves known not through any abject act of horrific treatment, but in the tone and energy of the public defenders in contrast to the privately-hired defense attorneys.
The harried public defenders scrambled from defendant to defendant doing their best to comprehend the perspectives of the working-class accused, while coiffed lawyers emerged for the far more serious charges against the white and wealthy. One particularly dramatic gun charge—loaded hollow-tip guns and illegal batons in a central car console, levied against a well-dressed nutritional supplement entrepreneur—was particularly staggering. The lawyer made a point multiple times that the accused's brother, who was dressed to the nines in the courtroom, lived in the West Village, that the car in question had been a Range Rover, and that both brothers had attended respected universities. None of these specifics were offered for any other defendant during the session, and were clearly designed to showcase not morality, not community ties, but wealth and power.
Or the man accused of choking his wife and throwing her on the ground, whose private attorney clearly knew every detail of the case down to the dimensions of the defendant’s bedroom and stressed his economic success, the fact that his wife—also a respected professional—was in the courtroom supporting him, that he didn’t have any prior brushes with the law. He walked free that evening.
Or, alternatively, the Black 18-year-old with 11 prior arrests, involved in a convoluted stabbing in an unclear way that his public defender, scratching his head, suggested was too complicated for an arraignment and shrugged as the judge set bail. Had the accused been at the scene of the crime? Did he own the knife? Had he tipped off his friends to the victim’s location? Nobody seemed to know. The accused, head hanging down with his mother and sister stoically watching in the row in front of me, seemed aware of just how little his lawyer comprehended in the few minutes they had together before the arraignment, how hard his public defender—a passionate 60-year-old white man with a quivering voice—wanted to get the facts right and was failing. Failing to know the accused, to find the salient pieces of positive spin that might have allowed him to leave the courtroom with his family that day, to get him a path to seeking help outside bars rather than to suffer within them.
I’m new to this and I am still learning. And I know I will see more egregious miscarriages of justice in coming weeks. But even in this comparatively even-keel first session, I came away with a sharp new knowledge of the optics between public and private defense. I understood with new clarity that until each defendant has access to the same level of care, support, preparation, and expertise from their lawyer, then America has little chance of fully undoing the prejudices that continue to imprison minority, marginalized, and poor bodies while letting their wealthy counterparts off the hook.
REFLECTION FROM ANOTHER WATCHER
Overall, given that it was the end of the week, a Friday night, and I was told that judges at this time are normally harsh, the judge on this day was fair in hearing all the cases presented to her. In most of the cases, she did not agree with the prosecutor’s recommendation and released most of the accused without bail as long as they agreed to return to court.
It was my first time observing and I didn’t expect that the proceedings in court to look just like a regular day at work. Both prosecutors and public defenders had their section with computer monitors they look at and the cases seemed just like paperwork they go through and present to the judge.
A case that stood out to me was a Black teenage boy who was being charged with marijuana possession. The judge immediately recognized that the charge the prosecution was leveling was unreasonable which the public defender pointed out that based on her investigation, a specific cop was targeting this teenager because the arrest was not the first time and the incident surrounding it was clearly uncalled for.