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Legal Levity: A Memorable Courtroom Experience

One doesn’t often think of courtrooms as places where humor is to be found. Anger, frustration, tears, sadness - yes, but humor? Not so much. But the truth is, if you spend enough time in courtrooms, you’ll hear plenty of funny things said and see them happen. True, they are often tinged with sadness, but they are funny nonetheless. I’ve been going to courtrooms for over 30 years, and in that time I’ve seen lots of examples of humor, some inadvertent, some intentional, but all of it funny. Below is one memorable example.

Years ago, when I was a young Legal Aid lawyer, I had a client who had mental health issues. It is an unfortunate fact that many people who become caught-up with the criminal justice system have mental health problems. This is doubly unfortunate because the justice system is singularly ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill people in a humane and effective manner. This particular client, Pedro, was charged with assault. Pedro could be unpredictable, even violent. He had punched a previous lawyer, which is how I came to be his lawyer. When he was in the courtroom I used to place a chair between him and me so that if he tried to assault me, he’d have to reach across the chair and maybe – just maybe – I’d have enough time to duck before his fist made contact with my face.

The judge was a slight, elderly woman with a nasal voice and a demanding demeanor. She was the undisputed boss in her courtroom. Pedro, his arms cuffed behind his back, was brought out and placed beside the chair that was strategically placed beside me. He was 35 years old, with a stocky build and angry, distrustful eyes. He had previously been 730’d, meaning that a psychological evaluation had been ordered. The doctors had determined that he was not fit to stand trial. The judge began to ask Pedro some questions to confirm that he understood that he’d been found unfit. Each time she asked him a question, however, he would simply tilt his head to one side and respond that she had no jurisdiction over him. She, in turn, patiently explained that she did, in fact, have jurisdiction over him.

As the judge explained the intricacies of jurisdiction, I noticed that Pedro had used his foot to pull the chair between us slightly toward him. Before I knew it Pedro had stepped up onto the chair then onto the wooden defense table. He regally surveyed the people around him then loudly made the following announcement: “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, I hereby proclaim this table to be MINE.” He said the word mine with a volume and finality that made it clear he meant business. He then got into a crouched position and angrily scanned the courtroom as if daring anyone to prove otherwise.

When the judge saw Pedro on the defense table her eyes bulged with disbelief. “What is this man doing on my table?” she asked, as though Pedro had come to her house and mounted her dining room table. The court officers looked at each other and shrugged. They’d apparently never seen anyone climb atop a defense table and proclaim it to be theirs before, and they weren’t sure how to handle it.

When nobody did anything, the judge screamed, or at least raised her nasal voice as high as it would go, “I said what is this man doing on my table. I want him off my table this instant!” When the court officers began to nervously confer about how to handle the novel situation, the judge squawked, “NOW!”

With that two court officers walked over to the defense table. One officer grabbed one of Pedro’s legs close to the ankle and the other officer grabbed the other leg. Then they simply yanked both legs forward so that Pedro fell backward. His back hit the desk and, just like that, he was whisked off the desk and into the pens behind the courtroom where the inmates were kept.

We were having a discussion about Pedro when one of the court officers who had just carried him into the back returned to the courtroom. Looking sheepishly at the judge, he said that Pedro asked for his shoes. Only then did I notice that the shoes Pedro was wearing when he mounted the table were still exactly where he’d been standing when he was pulled off the table. He’d apparently been yanked right out of his shoes. The court officer walked over and looked dubiously at the shoes for a moment. He then gingerly picked-up each shoe with just his index finger and thumb and, holding them at a slight remove from his body, walked back into the pens to reunite them with their owner.