I spent 90 minutes in the Boulder County Justice Center last Friday. Yeah – it’s a beautiful building in an incredible setting. But – what goes on inside isn’t so beautiful. And – it’s definitely not what you see on Law and Order.
I have a story about a former running coach of mine who is now serving a long jail sentence. Someday I’ll feel like writing the entire story – it has some amazing twists and turns that – in hindsight – are instructive and enlightening. It was also my first real experience with a convicted felon and – as a result – I had to rethink a lot of my biases, fears, and preconceived notions about how justice works in this country.
Last Friday was emotionally difficult. I went to the sentencing hearing for Mr. Coach at the request of his lawyer. She was looking for several people to speak on behalf of Coach – he had already pled to new felony charges and was facing 8 to 16 years (it turns out that he’d been previously convicted for five previous felonies – all for similar check and bank fraud claims.) His lawyer was hoping for a sentence of 8 years, even though she admitted that nothing had gone Coach’s way in this case.
I’d never been to the Boulder Justice Center before. Amy had when she served jury duty and she warned me to be ready for an awkward feeling experience in the beauty of the Boulder Flatirons. I’d been to the Jefferson County Courthouse a number of times during my successful efforts to help defeat a proposal for supertowers on Eldorado Mountain. The Boulder Justice Center – like the Jefferson County Courthouse – is externally beautiful, internally well done, but with a patina of discomfort everywhere.
I went through security and wandered through the halls looking for the courtroom for the sentencing hearing. I found the room, entered, and sat down on one of the long, lonely benches. Coach hadn’t been brought in yet, so I sat and watched three other sentencing hearings. The courtroom was overmiked so you could hear every conversation that was occurring, which often was as many as four at a time. The judge – a middle-aged woman who exuded competence and control – settled everyone down and called the first case.
A well dressed man and his lawyer walked to the podium. The judge addressed him, reading out his charges, which included stalking his ex-wife, harassing her, and breaking a restraining order. The attorney whispered urgently in the man’s ear, clearly calming him down as you could see the man’s face flush. The judge then walked through the plea agreement, which included a three year suspended sentence, probation, and another restraining order. She asked several formal legal questions which he agreed to. She asked if he had any questions. A series of emotional questions from the man followed, which insinuated that the ex-wife was having difficulty living up to her end of the custody agreement. The judge admonished the man – asserting that this was about him, not his ex-wife. There was a long pause, some discussion with the attorney, at which point the emotional man managed to tearfully agree. The judge pronounced the sentence and closed the case. The man walked out of the courtroom with his head hung low, staring at the ground.
Next up was a very overweight woman loudly dressed (always a sight for the chronically over-fit town of Boulder.) I had trouble understanding the situation, but it had something to do with a DUI, underpaid restitution from a previous conviction, and some current issue that was unclear. The woman was very emotional, but articulate, explained that she knew she had done wrong in the past, but was now working full time, going to therapy, taking care of two kids as a single mother, and going to AA meetings. Her boss came up and spoke on her behalf – it was clear that she was trying hard to hold it together. She admitted that she had gotten behind on the restitution payments, but was now paying $100 / month which was as much as she could afford (she was making $500 / week at her 40 hour / week job – remember – two kids.) The DA then asked for her sentence to be amended to include 80 additional hours of community service in exchange for the missed restitution. The judge looked thoughtfully at the woman, told her she was doing a good job, looked at the DA, told her that she would much rather have the loudly dressed woman working full time, and praised her for her efforts. The judge reiterated – for the record – that the minimum monthly restitution payment should continue to be $100 until it was fully paid (there was still $8,400 remaining to be paid) – and closed the case.
The judge took a ten minute break as we waited for the DA to show up for the next case. The judge returned and – after some confusion – discovered that the person to be sentenced “was missing.” It took a little while to figure out where he was – it turned out that he’d been transferred from one jail to a different one earlier in the week. Chaos ensued for a little while longer, at which point the judge decided to ice things until Monday.
By the point Coach had been brought into the courtroom. He was handcuffed, accompanied by an armed (and very intimidating looking) guard, and wearing Boulder County prison whites. He was seated in an area away from us, but looked over and mouthed a “thank you for coming” to the people that were there for him. The last time I saw him was about nine months ago when I last visited him at the Boulder County Jail – he looked unchanged. The judge eventually called his case. There was some procedural stuff between Coach’s attorney, the judge, and the DA as this judge was new to the case and Coach’s attorney wanted to delay the sentencing until the judge that had been involved in the rest of the case could preside (she was unexpectedly out that day.) The judge declined – stating she was up to speed on the case and was comfortable determining the sentence. Coach’s attorney made her statement and then called four of us up to speak on his behalf. I went last and followed the other three with acknowledgment that Coach had done many things wrong, had deceived many people, but had been a dedicated coach and we’d seen plenty of good in him. All of us requested that the judge consider being lenient – which in this case meant a sentence of 8 years instead of up to 16 years. The DA then spoke, stating that Coach was a bad guy, demonstrated chronic deceit, had repeatedly done the same bad things over and over in his life, and deserved 15 to 16 years. Coach then spoke, addressing the judge directly, apologized for his actions, explained that he knew he was wrong and deserved whatever he got, had been trying hard to do right, but had gotten overwhelmed and didn’t know how to ask for help. Mixed in all of this was a lot of discussion of a relatively recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder along with the accompanying medication and therapy, which – according to Coach and his attorney – had shown a marked change in his attitude, behavior, and perception.
Coach sat down and the judge addressed all of us. The basic message was “while you have seen the good in Coach, you’ve been fortunate to not see the bad in Coach. This is a man who has habitually deceived people through his life – he is a con-man, a flim-flam man. While the bipolar disorder may have an impact, this doesn’t excuse his behavior.” She said a few more things, which I interpreted as implying that those of us supporting Coach – while nice – were naive. She then sentenced him to 12 years.
Coach – head down – was walked out of the courtroom. We stood and walked out into the hall. The group of us gathered around Coach’s attorney, who had tears in her eyes. She told us that this felt like the first case she’d ever had where a client was sentenced to jail – the prosecutor – and older man – came up to her and said “honey – you’ll get used to it.” She said she never has, and this one was harder than so many others because she didn’t feel that Coach deserved this sentence.
I wandered out of the courthouse, got in my car, and slowly drove home.