Family Court Stories #1 (10/24/06)

A Life Saved

The 17-year-old defendant stands before the judge in an orange detention sweatsuit, loosely shackled at the feet and hands, showing little emotion. He is accused of sexually assaulting his little sister.

Is he a monster? It is hard to tell. As an outside observer, I do not have access to the paperwork that most of the other people in the courtroom have. I don’t know if the evidence is solid or flimsy. I don’t know anything about the circumstances of the alleged crime, when it occurred or the age of the supposed victim. All I have is the youth in front of me,

The defendant hasn’t even had a chance to enter a plea, because it isn't relevant. For the purposes of this hearing, he is presumed guilty.

accompanied by his parents and his public defender. At the opposite table are the Deputy District Attorney and a probation officer, and in the middle, in his slightly raised podium, is Judge William Voy, looking a little worse for wear.

Although I don’t know exactly what act the boy is accused of, Nevada law defines sexual assault as “sexual penetration... under conditions in which the perpetrator knows or should know that the victim is mentally or physically incapable of resisting or understanding the nature of his conduct.” When the victim is under 16 years of age, as is certainly the case here, the minimum punishment is 20 years in prison.

The boy hasn't yet entered a plea, because it isn't relevant. Under the law, he is innocent until proven guilty, except in this particular kind of hearing, where he is presumed guilty. We are here for a much more significant proceeding than any criminal trial. In this hearing, the judge must decide whether this teenager, recently arrested, should be processed as a child or an adult. If he is tried and convicted as an adult, he will get those 20 years. If he is convicted in the juvenile system, he will be released by the age of 21, no more than four years from now.

The boy, to my eyes, seems soft and vulnerable, not hard and cold. He looks a little younger than his age. He is required to stand during most of the long hearing, with his attorney on his right and his parents on his left. His mother is seated, and his natural father stands behind her chair. His parents are divorced, but they appear cooperative and “normal,” for what it is worth, like your next-door neighbors. They are obviously distressed by the proceedings, but they haven’t lost composure.

It has been a long day. This is the tail end of the Wednesday afternoon JSO calendar — Juvenile Sex Offenses — at Family Court in Las Vegas. Wednesday is the day when we gather together all of the ugly crimes that no one wants to think about and distill them into one marathon parade of hearings that usually extends into the evening. It is already pushing six o’clock, and there are five more cases to go. Judge Voy, however, will not be rushed. If there are arguments be made, they will be heard, even if it means that some defendants and their families have to wait three hours or more to be called.

The bailiff, Trina, is getting testy, which is uncharacteristic for her and suggests a growing tension in the room. She has already snipped at the D.A. and even at the judge, and I am sinking low into my seat in the back of the courtroom to make myself as small a target as possible. I have been coming to this courtroom a couple of times a week for about a year. I know the personalities and procedures and when to lay low to avoid having my head bitten off.

The judge himself looks drained. The defense attorneys and probation officers want to go home. The parents in the airport waiting hall in front and the kids in the concrete lock-up in back are nearly stir-crazy from boredom.

The only person who seems to be taking it all in stride is Deputy District Attorney Mary Brown. Charged with protecting society from perverts and sexual predators, she seems quite chipper today, even bubbly. Every once in a while, between cases, you hear her infectious laugh—a giggle really—and it brightens the room. She’s on her fourth bottle of Diet Coke and cruising along nicely as she explains to the judge why a certain child needs to be placed in a locked treatment facility and not the limp-wristed, bound-to-fail home management program that the public defender proposes.

This morning was occupied by the juvenile prostitution docket, also prosecuted by Mary. Here we met a dozen teenage girls, invariably from dysfunctional homes, who were recently picked up by Vice for soliciting undercover officers in major casinos and certain well-known street corners. Many are from out of state, typically finding their way to Las Vegas in the company of an older “boyfriend,” who tells her he loves her and who has a great idea for making money.

Prostitution is still a crime in Las Vegas, at least when it becomes too visible, but underage girls—once they finally reveal their ages—are treated by the court more as victims than criminals. On Wednesday mornings, you see a lot of cooperation between defense and prosecution as they try to work out the best solution for each girl. Getting arrested may be the best thing that has ever happened to her, because treatment and support services can now be provided.

After investigation by a social worker, some girls are sent back to their states of origin via "Judge Voy Airways," meaning a ticket purchased through his discretionary fund. If sending a girl home is not a viable or humane option, the court will try to find her a safe environment that is appropriate to her needs. In lieu of prison, she will be sent to a place where she can be protected from her pimp, treated for her addictions and given some hope of a future.

Whether she chooses to stay in this place is another matter. These girls, in general, have a reputation as “runners,” mercurial in temperament and deviously resistant to authority, who will often skip out at the slightest provocation from whatever a group home or treatment center they are placed in. Getting them to stay put is one of the biggest challenges of the court.

But that was the easy part of the day. Now we’re into the afternoon calendar, which includes every other kind of sex offense. Mostly this consists of boys putting their hands or penises in places where they don’t belong.

The distinction between morning and afternoon is startling and flies in the face of political correctitude. Boys and girls tend to commit different crimes, and nowhere is this more evident than in sex offenses. Boys don’t appear on the prostitution calendar, and girls rarely appear in the afternoon. Girls are seduced by the easy money and attention of giving up their bodies, which suddenly and mysteriously have become attractive to men. Boys, in contrast, seem driven by a powerful physical obsession with sex and sex organs.

Neither really understands what is happening to them, and the majority seem deeply ashamed by what they have done.

Both boys and girls who reach the court system tend to be highly impulsive. In part, this reflects the obvious brain deficiencies of adolescence. (It is a miracle—is it not?—that both you and I survived.) It is also no secret that the vast majority of child defendants have endured some sort of trauma or abuse. Most parents are only half there, either battling their own internal demons or drained by divorce. Their

There is no such thing as “normal” sexuality. Whether you lust after Jessica Simpson, Brad Pitt or little children, it is all quite weird and disturbing and nothing that any of us asked for.

children have very few social mechanisms in place to help them moderate their impulses—like a leader whom they respect. Many of them run wild until they are arrested and the court is forced to exert some parental control of its own.

Most juvenile crime is just stupid, at least when seen from the outside. Most kids aren’t trying to rob the Bank of England; they’re just grasping for self-esteem and for some kind of acknowledgement from the world. The most prolific crimes are joyriding, graffiti writing, stealing things to serve ones vanity, running wild with other teens, and, of course, getting high. There’s not a lot of purpose and direction to most of it, apart from rebellion. Kids want, above all, to “be somebody,” and if their environment doesn’t give them this opportunity, then they will exert their identity by devious means.

As if common existential angst weren’t enough, adolescents face another nightmare: puberty. Hormones change children’s bodies and give them a new set of hidden drives that make no rational sense. There is no such thing as “normal” sexuality. Whether you lust after Jessica Simpson, Brad Pitt or little children, it is all quite weird and disturbing and nothing that any of us asked for. It’s a mental disorder! Thanks to the hormones, obsessive thoughts begin to intrude into consciousness. If you give in to them even momentarily in ways society does not approve, you could place yourself and others in grave danger for no apparent gain.

The Wednesday afternoon JSO calendar teaches us about the many deviant ways that male sexuality can be expressed. What is “deviant” reflects not just the current standards of society. These acts are deviant mainly because someone gets hurt, usually a child who is much younger than the deviator.

Common sexual experimentation between “consenting” children of similar ages may be technically illegal but it is rarely prosecuted. An exception might be when the activity becomes so public that it can’t be ignored. (If you are going to “play doctor,” then please have some discretion.) Most of what is seen on Wednesday afternoon is inherently non-consensual: usually sexual abuse by an older boy of a much younger child of either sex.

Such an age discrepancy seems to apply to the accused standing in front of me and his alleged victim. Even though his sister’s age hasn’t been specified, it sounds like she is very young. It seems that the alleged incident happened a few months ago and only come to light as the side effect of an investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS). CPS is a division of Family Services, a troubled county department that no one in Juvenile Justice seems to fully understand or trust. CPS has produced many life-saving investigations but also some incredibly botched ones.

Alleged child sexual abuse, especially by a minor against a minor, can be extremely difficult both to prosecute and to defend. The only direct witness is probably the victim herself—a unreliable and easily influenced child. If some time has passed, there probably isn’t going to be any physical evidence. Short of an admission by the defendant, these cases are hard to prove.

On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to get teenagers to keep their mouths shut. No matter how many times you read them their Miranda rights, they often fail to grasp how an offhand remark can be used against them, sometimes unfairly. In everything they do, teenagers have great difficulty comprehending the effects of their own actions, which is why, in part, we have a separate justice system for them.

Then there is the highly emotional nature of the charges themselves, which encourages all parties to shrink away from examining the precise details of the incident. In contrast with, say, murder, where there’s a body, a verifiable means of death and oodles of forensic evidence, sex charges tend to be much more subjective and perception-dependent. The majority of juvenile sex charges don’t reach the semen stage—Some defendants can’t even produce any yet.—so DNA testing is rarely helpful. In this environment of ephemeral evidence and upsetting charges, there is a much greater tendency to trust authority and to base a decision on emotional “clues” that might not be accurate—such as an offhand remark by the dimwitted defendant.

You truly have a volatile mix when you throw in some hysterical parents and their own hidden emotional agendas. It is not unusual for a neighborhood molestation to go on right under the nose of the victim’s parents—because they’re messed up themselves or are occupied with other things. Perhaps, a couple years later, the victim gets old enough to talk about the experience to, say, a teacher, who is then mandated to report it. When the parents finally find out, they go ballistic. It not just the affront to their child that outrages them but their own humiliation at never having suspected.

Parental humiliation tends to be translated into an overestimate of the trauma to the child and an enhanced urge to fry the perpetrator. “My child hasn’t stopped having nightmares since we found out about this,” they say. Any current bad behavior by the victim can now be attributed to the alleged abuse, conveniently freeing the parents of responsibility for things that might have nothing to do with it. One wonders, at times, which causes more damage to the victim: the actual abuse, which is usually brief, or the parents’ hysterical reaction to it, which can go on for years and traumatize the child in its own right.

In the case of the defendant before me, who I will call “Kyle,” there could be another parental agenda worth investigating. The victim is actually his step-sister, and there appear to be some tensions between her father and Kyle’s mom. Divorce or divorce-like situations often raise a red flag for the reliability of child witnesses. Tensions between one camp and another seem to naturally flow toward trumped up sex abuse charges: if not one spouse against another than one spouse’s children against the other’s.

However, any speculation about Kyle’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant at this point. The court isn’t trying to decide that now. The present action is a “certification” hearing. This is Nevada’s term for the transfer of juvenile cases to adult court. Today’s decision will be made as though the charges were true. If Kyle did sexually assault his step-sister, then is it an “adult” offense, subject to the extraordinary mandatory punishments reserved for sex offenders, or is it a “childhood” offense, seen more as a treatable disease?

If he is convicted as charged in criminal court, it would put Kyle in prison for anywhere from twenty years to life, roughly the same penalty as killing someone, and there would be little in the way of treatment offered. Retaining him in the juvenile system would give him extensive sex offender treatment and probably release him on probation in less than a year.

Certification is the awkward intersection between two dramatically different universes: the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice (adult) system. The juvenile system is the closest thing we have in America to enlightened justice. It is akin to criminal justice is some liberal European country, where punishment is lenient but crime rates are low. The aim is not to “punish” but to “reform.” The juvenile delinquent is seen not as a criminal but as a wayward ward in need of guidance or a patient in need of treatment.

American criminal justice is about retribution, pure and simple, with very little genuine attempt at reform. This justice is blind — as well is deaf, dumb and insensitive to what is really going to prevent crime in the future. It is a settling of accounts according a simplistic set of formulas: Do the crime, and you'll do the time.

To emphasize its different mission, the juvenile court has its own language. A child accused of a crime isn’t a “defendant” but a “subject minor,” who is charged in a “petition” rather than a “criminal complaint.” When the charges against him are proved, he isn’t “found guilty”; he’s “adjudicated.” The consequences are then determined in his “disposition” hearing, not “sentencing.” If he commits the crime before his 18th birthday, barring certification, then the crime is essentially forgiven on his 21st birthday, and his records are sealed.

A subject minor can be accused of any adult crime, and like an adult, he is innocent until proven guilty. If he does not admit the offense, then he must be tried by the same rules of evidence and procedure as in criminal court. (Only a jury trial is denied to him.) Once convicted, however, the rules of adult sentencing don’t apply. The court is bound by no mandatory punishments and is free to craft a “solution” that is unique to the needs and problems of each child.

It is painfully clear in juvenile court that a child is part of a family system. His parents are beside him in the courtroom, and once they start talking, it is often quickly demonstrated where the real problem lies. Only the juvenile court can demand the participation of a parent in their

Of course, harsh sentencing and frequent certification do almost nothing to prevent crime.... They only give the crowd in the coliseum a primitive sense of “justice” after the crime has already occurred.

child’s treatment. The court also has the power to remove the child from his home and order an alternative living arrangement for as long as necessary. If the child is assessed with mental health issues, he can be forcefully placed into treatment, usually paid for by the government.

Juvenile justice isn’t just punishment; it can be a whole alternative child welfare system, similar to the one that protects children from drug addicted parents. Once the child is convicted of a crime, this opens the door to state intervention—an Orwellian nightmare to some families but a lifesaving godsend to others. The child and his family can be assessed, treated and forced to make use of psychological services that they might not otherwise touch. In Nevada, this humanitarian effort is limited only by the pitiful resources that the state devotes to psychological services and family support systems in general.

The juvenile system recognizes that children are not yet fully responsible for their actions, so they should be allowed the opportunity to make mistakes without being permanently crippled by them. It is based on the enlightened and seemingly un-American theory that a relatively small amount of resources devoted to solving a child’s problems now will result in far less cost to society in the long run. Rather than the taxpayer spending $50,000/year to house an incorrigible adult inmate, wouldn’t it have been far less costly to address the childhood problems that lead to his behavior?

You would think.

On the day a child turns 18, an entirely different method of justice kicks in. It is a system of blind punishment that may make some sense for low-level offenses but is nearly ineffective at preventing higher level crimes like rape and murder. American adult criminal justice has long ago lost any enlightened tendencies. Do the crime and you’ll do the time, regardless of your problems or needs. The “time,” of course, is not treatment but societal retribution, with few skills learned beyond those that one inmate teaches another.

The criminal justice system is insensitive because that’s what the voters want. They are outraged by crime, of course, and they hire outraged legislators who continually up the ante. Whenever a particularly heinous crime hits the newspapers, especially a sexually motivated one, it increases the pressures for harsh and mandatory sentencing, which, once enacted, is almost never removed from the books. If such crimes are committed by youths, then it ratchets up the demand to treat more children as adults.

Of course, harsh sentencing and frequent certification do almost nothing to prevent crime. People who commit serious crimes aren’t thinking about the possible consequences. They are either acting impulsively or believe they won’t get caught. In either case, whether the punishment for a certain crime is five years in prison or fifty years has little effect on their behavior. It only gives the crowd in the coliseum a primitive sense of “justice” after the crime has already occurred.

Within the context of the juvenile justice system, certification is equivalent to the death penalty for most defendants. It is the difference between quietly treating the youth and returning him to society or just giving up on him and locking him up, perhaps forever.

It can be argued that certification is a necessity in some cases. When the juvenile system has run through its bag of tricks, the kid is on his 15th petition and has been to all the youth correctional facilities, what do you do? Every youth should be treated with compassion, but you don’t want to be wasting your limited resources on a subject minor who won’t respond. Maybe the court could decide, in this case, that the minor is already living an “adult lifestyle” and needs to be treated that way.

Unfortunately, the Nevada legislature thinks it knows better than a judge which children fit this category, so it has taken away most of the court’s discretion. If a minor, no matter how young, is charged with murder or attempted murder, then the case is automatically transferred to adult court, with no opportunity for a juvenile judge to intervene. If he is charged with any other crime involving a gun, and the District Attorney chooses to certify, then the certification is “presumptive” and can’t easily be denied. The only legal defense under state law is to show that the defendant was mentally incompetent or under the influence of drugs at the time. This leads to the absurd situation where that defense questions the validity of a negative drug test. (“Honest, Your Honor, I was doing drugs!”)

Presumptive certification also applies to sexual assault where a threat of force is used, with or without a gun. In Kyle’s case, I don’t know whether a threat of force is alleged, but the way the lawyers are arguing, it appears that the judge has a bit more discretion—and more responsibility.

You can see it in the judge’s face. This isn’t any easy case.

Prosecutor Brown stands up to speak, summarizing what I assume is already detailed in her written documents. She points out that this is not the subject minor’s first sex charge. He was adjudicated of an earlier one and provided with the standard sex offender counseling over the course of a two-year probation. Judging by the current charge, the lessons seem not to have taken hold, and submitting him again to the same set of treatments would seem to be futile.

“He has been given the benefits of all the treatment programs the court has to offer, and he chose to re-offend,” she says. “Based on that, I think that community protection compels certification to District Court, and I would ask the court to follow the recommendation of Parole and Probation.”

I am searching the subject minor’s face for some hints of what is going on inside. Is he aware of the seriousness of the proceedings? For all practical purposes, he is a bystander in this hearing. No one has not asked him any questions, so I haven’t heard him speak. I detect a few grimaces and facial ticks but certainly nothing I can evaluate for, say, goodness or evil. Is this a incorrigible predator or some kind of hapless victim?

Now his attorney speaks. She is public defender Gail Curtis, who handles primarily JSO’s. She cites a Nevada Supreme Court case called “Seven Minors,” which provides a road map for how the court should handle this kind of certification.

Is there “slight or marginal prosecutorial merit”? Curtis acknowledges that there is. She does not dispute that these are very serious charges if true.

It seems strange to me that Nevada law requires the court to pursue this prosecution upside done. The defendant hasn’t even had a chance to make a plea, but for this proceeding he is presumed guilty. The decision to certify is based only on an allegation, not a conviction. To a lay person like myself, it would make more sense to try the case first and then if he is found guilty, decide whether he should be punished as an adult. Instead, if certified, he would be punished first—by being sent to the adult system—and tried only later.

As I understand it, if a defendant is transferred to adult court based on certain “slight or marginal” allegations, and those charges are later reduced or not proven in adult court, then he still remains in the adult system for sentencing on the lessor offense and for any subsequent charges. This system puts a lot of unchecked power in the D.A.’s hands and gives very little to the court or defense attorneys.

Curtis reviews another part of the Seven Minors road map: What is the defendant’s prior adjudication history? Is he a repeat offender?

Yes, Kyle has has two prior offenses: a non-sexual battery, which Curtis doesn’t describe, and a prior sex charge, which happened when he was very young. He was ten years old at the time of the proven sex offense. In spite of chaotic circumstances in his family, Curtis points out, he “successfully” completed his probation, “which clearly shows that he is amenable to services provided by the juvenile court system.” Curtis points out that there were no other reported sex offenses for nearly five years, until the current accusations.

We all know how this works: the defense and prosecution can each take the same fact—the prior sex offense—and twist it around to serve their role. To prosecutor Brown, the prior sex charge is proof of the defendant’s unreformable nature. To defense attorney Curtis, it is proof that the child can respond successfully to the treatments available in the juvenile system, so he should be kept here.

Although this is not the place to argue the guilt or innocence of her client, Curtis reviews the circumstances that lead to this charge.

Kyle’s family obviously has had a lot of problems and many of interactions with CPS. It was not Kyle’s actions that alerted CPS but those of his step-sister, who was twice caught performing sex acts on an even younger brother. Clearly the child has sexual knowledge that she shouldn’t have at her age. The only question is, where did the knowledge came from?

I would guess from Curtis’s speech that the age of the step-sister is somewhere around 6 or 7. According to Curtis, the step-sister has never acknowledged to her own mother any inappropriate contacts by Kyle. At one point, the child reportedly told her mom that her sexual knowledge came from watching a pornographic movie at her father’s house.

Based on the sketchy information presented in court, I haven't come close to figuring out all the relationships here, but something is already clear to me: If Kyle is a sex offender, he is not the only one in the family. If he committed a sex offense at age 10, before puberty, then it is almost certain that he himself was abused before then. It would not be a stretch to suppose that the same person who abused Kyle and gave him his own precocious knowledge of sex might have also done the same to his step-sister.

Furthermore, if this is a household that breeds multiple sex offenders, how would you distinguish the actions of one from those of another? Presumably, the child reported the alleged sexual assault to a CPS investigator upon questioning; yet, she hasn’t even told her own mother the same story. How reliable is this witness? Is she telling CPS what they want to hear? Is she blaming one party to escape from someone else?

It gets murkier. Kyle is a drug addict. He had cocaine in his system at the time of his arrest. In a certification hearing, this is usually a good thing. Drug abuse might suggest a greater likelihood that the charges are true, since addicts do a lot of crazy things when high, but under the seemingly arbitrary preferences of Nevada law it also suggests that he can be successfully treated within the juvenile system.

According to Curtis, the Seven Minors ruling says that even youths of 16 and 17 who have committed serious offenses may benefit from being separated from adult offenders. The court, she says, must look at how amenable the youth is to treatment and how the “public safety” is best served. Do you want to throw this young-looking youth in prison with hardened criminals where he is going to become more hardened himself, or do you want to take a final shot at treatment?

“At age 17, this court has another four years to work with this youth,” says his lawyer. ”There is plenty of time to work with him and get him the services he needs. He was so very young when he picked up his first sex offense, and he did successfully complete the program. If he is adjudicated on any of these charges, maybe it means he needs a higher level of care. He was treatable then, and he's treatable now.”

Kyle has also written a letter for the judge, and there is silence for several minutes as the judge reads it to himself.

Now it’s Mary Brown’s turn again. That’s how things work: The prosecution presents its case, giving its spin on the evidence. The defense replies with it’s own take, then the prosecution has a chance to reply to that reply. The cycle can go on for several iterations until each side has said their piece.

“Ms. Brown?” says the judge.


Ms. Brown doesn’t even bother to stand up, as you are supposed to when the judge addresses you.

A propos of nothing, I notice that she has been eating some cookies. They are very small cookies: Chips A’Hoy Minis from a small snack bag given to her by the bailiff a few minutes ago. I am a little worried that the cookies might be negating the caloric savings of all that Diet Coke, but as I said, they are very small cookies.

“Ms. Brown?” repeats the judge, looking distressed. “Do you have anything to add?”

Prosecutor Brown shrugs. “You’ve heard both sides, Judge,” she says, without standing up. “Now you choose.”

Clearly this is a departure from the script. Brown is supposed to jump up and strenuously object to each of the points raised by the defense. That’s her role. It’s her certification petition. She’s the one who wants to send the kid to adult court, and now she’s just sitting there eating cookies.

The judge rubs his eyes. It’s not easy being God.

“The court will take a brief recess,” he says.

The bailiff is suppose to say "All rise!" but everyone is too tired for that. The judge just gets up and heads toward the back door behind his podium.

“Ms. Brown,” he says, just before leaving.

Ms. Brown heads for the same door, but just before she leaves, she says, “Ms. Curtis.”

Ms. Curtis goes “Huh?” She doesn’t understand, and neither do I.

“Are you coming?” says Ms. Brown.

Apparently the judge wants a private conference with the two attorneys. They all disappear into the back hallway, where they stay for a long time.

Those of us who remain in the courtroom have a chance to relax a little. It’s just myself, the subject minor, his parents, the probation officer, the bailiff Trina, and the court clerk Mary Lou.

Things are quiet for a few minutes as we wait for the results of negotiations in the back corridor. It is still not clear how things are going to go.

The quiet ends when Trina lets in the demons.

There are two of them, twin boys, about 8 or 9 years old. They run to Kyle, who is sitting at the defense table. He hugs them, to the extent that his shackles allow. As he holds one of them, Kyle starts to cry and the tears stream down his face.

They are his brothers. He hasn’t seen them in the weeks since his arrest. They have been outside in the waiting hall for four hours. Children who are not a party to the proceedings are not allowed in juvenile court hearings, so Trina has been keeping an eye on them by looking out the door occasionally.

Trina says that they were hungry demons. “I gave them a granola bar,” she says. “I made them split it, but they were very grateful. They said, ’Thank you! We were so hungry we would have eaten lava rocks.’”

Trina knew that they wanted to see Kyle. When the unexpected break came, she decided to let them in, with the understanding that they would have to leave immediately when the judge came back.

The rest of us in the courtroom are focussed on Kyle and his two brothers. This is an intimate moment, totally not an act, of reunification between loving family members. Ignoring his own crisis, Kyle asks them about school, about what they have done since they left. The tears clear up quickly, as he focuses on them.

I look over at Mary Lou, and she is nearly losing it. Her eyes are wet. She tries to busy herself on on her computer, obviously to prevent her own tears from spilling.

This is the sort of scene, taking place outside courtrooms everywhere, that judges aren’t allowed to see. It is too prejudicial and easily manipulated. Judges can see only proper evidence, vetted through the appropriate channels. Here we see a human being in terrible pain, reaching out to other humans who love him. Blind justice isn't supposed to know about that.

Are we going to deprive these twins of their brother? Are we going to send this young man away to a life in government sponsored hell? How much is the system going to further traumatize this already traumatized family?

Nearly ten minutes have passed since the judge and lawyers left the courtroom. Trina decides that it is time for the demons to leave, so she shoos them out.

There is silence again. I am standing about eight feet away from Kyle. Our eyes meet momentarily, but I can't think of anything to say. What can I possibly say? His life hangs in the balance at this moment. I don’t want to give him any words of encouragement, because they might be shattered.

The judge and two attorneys file back into the courtroom. The defendant stands and awaits the verdict.

As though carrying a heavy weight, the judge begins going through the formula defined by Seven Minors. Is the charge serious? Yes, this is the most serious charge possible where the judge still has the discretion to choose. Is there slight or marginal prosecutorial merit? Yes, the charges have a prima facia basis. Are there prior adjudications that would be judged as felonies in the adult system? Yes, the earlier sex offense.

These factors qualify Kyle for certification, but the judge says Seven Minors also allows him to consider other things, the most important of which is public safety. If Kyle is sent to the adult system, he will be exposed to adult criminals and will not receive much in the way of counseling for his problems. If he is retained in the juvenile system, intensive services can be given to him, probably turning him into a better citizen than he will be 20 years from now.

“The court finds that it is in the interests of public safety that certification be denied,” says the judge.

Kyle starts crying and hugs his mom.

“Thank you,” he says.

“I want you to understand how close this came,” the judge continues. “To keep you here, this court will be exercising the outer limits of its power. If there is anything that is asked of you, you need to make sure that you do it, because whatever it is, it isn't as bad as what might have happened here today.

“I have no doubt that if you had entered the adult system, you would not be coming out of it,” says Judge Voy.

What do judges wear under their black robes? In Voy's case, it's usually a Hawaiian shirt, short pants and sandals. I know this, because after the court docket is over, he usually takes his robe off right there in the courtroom. After the theatre of court, life becomes casual again. The attorneys are gathering up their files, which they will wheel out of the courtroom on luggage carts. Trina and Mary Lou are finishing their own clerical work, preparing to leave.

“Mary Lou almost lost it,” I say to the room in general. “I was watching her.”

“I did lose it,” says Mary Lou. “It was so sad.”

“I was watching both of you,” says Trina. “There was a story in each of your faces.”

I tell Voy and the attorneys about the scene that transpired while they were out of the courtroom. Trina and Mary Lou then give their own impressions.

Things are quite relaxed now. I congratulate Gail on her win and Mary for showing restraint. Only Voy still looks drained.

“That was not fun,” he says.

It's not easy being God. This is a guy who is absolutely dedicated to the kids in his care, but he also respects the law, and the law had him in a tight spot.

I don't know what happened in the back hallway, but I am pretty sure that the kid didn't get certified only because Mary backed off.

I confront Mary with this theory, but she just laughs and denies it, so I focus on something more concrete and factual: Was it three bottles of Diet Coke or four?

She’s coy and refuses to answer. When I write this up, I'll just have use my best guess. There were two bottles in the afternoon, but I didn't notice how many she drank in the morning. I'll guess two, for a total of four.

As for the cookies, I am certain of that they were Chips A'Hoy Minis, because I was sitting directly behind Mary at the time.

As the case became more interesting, I moved up to the front row. She had to know I was there, that I was watching the proceedings intensely, and that I might conceivably write about this very case. Could my presence have had any affect on Mary's decision to back off?

Naw, it can't happen. The law is the law, and I'm just a neutral court observer. An observer doesn't change that which is observed.

Does he?

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