Frenzied days spent in Sessions Court

Frenzied days spent in Sessions Court

October 18th, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Judge Christie Mahn Sell swears and oath with a defendent on the bench in General Sessions Court.

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Judge Christie Mahn Sell...

Piles of arrest warrants lie on the assistant district attorneys' table at 8:30 a.m. in General Sessions Court. Defendants, witnesses and friends in the foreground of the courtroom cram themselves into the churchlike pews. People in the large hallway outside are just trying to figure out where to go.

Then there are the defendants who are still in jail. One is federal prisoner Dominic Brown, already incarcerated on separate charges and now charged in state court with indecent exposure. Apparently upset one day that he couldn't get a second tray of food, Mr. Brown exposed himself to a female Hamilton County Jail officer, according to court records.

The officer is here to be a witness in the case and, like many other people, she's vying for the attention of a prosecutor.

"It's like working in an emergency room down here," says Lila Statom, the supervising prosecutor who has just scurried in.

Ms. Statom, a Hamilton County assistant district attorney who jokes that it's easier to do her job because of her "ADD," is talking about the typical scene on the second floor of the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building.

This floor is not to be confused with the main Criminal Court on the third floor, where prosecutors may be able to litigate serious felony cases for months or even years.

By contrast, General Sessions Court one floor below is ground zero for seemingly everyone charged locally with a crime, whether it be murder, indecent exposure or shoplifting.

The serious felony cases usually are sent upstairs to one of the main criminal courts quickly after a preliminary hearing. That leaves most of the second-floor players - prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants - to wheel and deal at an almost frantic pace as they try to resolve the thousands of misdemeanor cases that land in the five General Sessions courts each year.

It's arguably the only place in town where legal agreements can be hashed out in five minutes or less in a hallway. Prosecutors never know what cases they'll be handling until they review their stack of arrest warrants each morning. And rookie lawyers try to cut their teeth here, where the practice of small-time criminal defense rules.

General Sessions Judge Bob Moon argues that his court deals with the "continuing saga of human breakdown" more than any other segment of government. He and his colleagues are in position to make a real impact on the hundreds of people who come before them every day.

"Very few people ever go beyond this court, so for most, the judgments they receive here will be their impression of the judicial system for the rest of their lives," Judge Moon said.

In one case he sends a young mother to jail for violating her probation on theft charges, even though she has brought all three of her children to court hoping that he might spare her.

"This (court) is like the catacombs of misery," he says later after watching a court officer escort the children from the courtroom. If their grandmother doesn't pick them up, they'll have to go with a representative of child protective services.

On this particular morning, Ms. Statom and her colleague Ben Boyer are about to start sifting through about 125 cases they'll finish before they head home.

Judge Moon usually gives them at least half an hour each morning to get their bearings. He has a reputation for going fast once he's on the bench, and if prosecutors haven't yet worked out deals with defense attorneys, he could end up twiddling his thumbs.

"What I've done in the past 50 minutes he'll probably blow through in 10," Mr. Boyer says.

It's a familiar scenario for prosecutors, who know they shoulder the burden of clearing out these cases on a regular basis. Working with defense attorneys, they decide how most cases will end, usually with suspended jail sentences and the promise that offenders will perform public work days as punishment for their misdemeanor crimes.

"I read these warrants, but I read them very fast," Ms. Statom says with only a couple of minutes to spare before Judge Moon comes on the bench. "We just keep movin'."

By the end of the week, Ms. Statom and the other full-time prosecutors in the General Sessions courts will have handled more than 3,000 cases.

Doing the job takes creative juggling and a keen sense for distinguishing the seriousness of crimes, Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox said recently from his office on the third floor.

Prosecutors have no control over the types of cases coming into the courts, he said. But even the most insignificant, such as public intoxication, must be addressed once they're in the system.

"It's a heavy load," Mr. Cox said. "But there's an awful lot of things that are illegal to do."

Yet occasional cases pop up in which a resolution is not so simple and actual legal debate must take place.

During the only lengthy hearing on one recent day, Judge Moon listened to arguments from Ms. Statom and public defender Garth Best on what constitutes "attempted murder."

It stemmed from the case against Carl Shoemaker, who is charged with trying to kill his cousin. Records say he took a weapon and went to the bar where his cousin normally hangs out. His cousin wasn't there, and ultimately no one got hurt.

But Ms. Statom argued that the circumstances leading up to the incident indicate Mr. Shoemaker intended to finish the job.

"Judge, (Mr. Shoemaker) called his cousin two days before this and said 'Hasta la vista, baby. It's your time to go,'" Ms. Statom said. "If that doesn't indicate attempted murder, I don't know what does."

Mr. Best argued that walking to a bar with a weapon in his pocket didn't mean that Mr. Shoemaker wanted to kill anyone.

Tennessee legal code states that any "significant action taken toward the objective" can be considered attempted murder.

Judge Moon affirmed the charges and sent the case to the grand jury, which will decide whether to indict Mr. Shoemaker on the felony count.

Defense attorneys and others often question why the system is so clogged with cases that seem petty in comparison to crimes such as the recent firebombings of two homes in what police called a gang initiation.

"This is sometimes more of a social court than a court of justice," said veteran defense attorney Charles Dupree. "There are people here who shouldn't be here, period."

For example, one man was accused of domestic violence, Mr. Dupree said. His fiancée stood in front of Judge Moon on Sept. 30 begging him to drop the charges. She said it was all a mistake.

"So if he's doing this as your fiancée," Judge Moon asked the woman, "what makes you think it's going to get any better when you're married?"

Judge Moon gave the man a second chance and promised to drop the charges if he completes a court-approved counseling program on domestic abuse. It's a remedy that Mr. Dupree has seen time and time again.

"What Judge Moon just did is not on the law books. That's the difference between here and upstairs (in Criminal Court)," Mr. Dupree said.