I stood outside a federal courtroom in downtown Orlando holding a sketchbook. Two groups huddled a few feet apart near the closed double doors. I took out a pencil and began to make quick sketches of a older woman talking to a man, a man staring off into space, a young woman slumping against a wall.
The older woman saw me drawing and marched over with a stern look on her face. “Are you recording our conversations?” she demanded. I held up my drawings and said, “I’m practicing. I’m the courtroom artist for Channel 6.” The woman turned away.
The doors opened a half hour before the hearing began. The reporter, who had called out of the blue to offer me this job, bustled in on an adrenaline high and told me to sit in the jury box. A seat in the box gave me the best view of the two convicts as their lawyers entered pleas and the judge delivered sentences.
I sketched as I waited. The courtroom filled gradually, and I noticed a number of police officers sitting on the left side near the back. Their expressions looked grim and determined. The bailiff entered, saw me, and demanded to know what I was doing in the jury box. I held up the sketchbook again, stated my purpose, and was granted permission to remain.
A woman wearing an orange jump suit trudged slowly with her uniformed escort into the chamber, and she took a seat at a table with her attorney. The judge entered, and the court came to order. The judge read the charges and the verdicts, and asked for statements. The lawyer stood at a podium beside the woman and pleaded for leniency for his client. He stated that she was a mother of two young children who needed her presence in their life. The woman’s mother, the lady who had accused me of spying earlier, came up and made a statement in support of her daughter. Daughter regretted her mistakes and had become a different person, and her kids really, really loved their mother.
The judge listened patiently but with an impassive expression, and he sentenced her to one year. The woman’s face fell, but she accepted her fate. A corrections officer led her away.
A few minutes later a tall man shambled in, and the ritual began anew. He was muscular in a raw-boned way, his hair cropped into short tufts, eyes hollow and dark ringed. He looked dangerous, but as he stood before the judge at the podium, lawyer at his side, he repeatedly took out a tissue and dabbed his eyes.
The judge reviewed the man’s offenses, and I found out that he had been a police officer who had worked with drug enforcement agents. Hollow Eyes decided, along with his wife (the woman just sentenced), to start a marijuana grow operation. He hired an ex-con as his assistant. The ex-con had turned him in, and had told police that Hollow Eyes had given him police radio codes so that he could be warned of imminent raids. The crooked cop had also bragged to the ex-con that he would kill anyone, cop or otherwise, if they messed with his drug business.
The uniforms seated on the left crossed arms over their chests and glared at the back of Hollow Eyes’ head. The judge’s face looked like a hatchet.
The lawyer began to make a plea for mercy. Hollow Eyes’ wife had been a druggy when they met, and she had dragged him under. She had received an easy sentence, and had been the cofounder of the grow operation. His client deserved equal leniency. His client had suffered through a crisis, had grown to find police work unfulfilling, and had started an illegal business in misguided hopes of finding new purpose in his life. The judge took a few notes. I scribbled away, but was distracted by this thought: “God, that was pathetic.”
The judge thought so too, but before he responded to the lawyer’s arguments, he addressed an old man seated at the back of the court. The judge said, “I want to acknowledge the defendant’s father, Judge B–. Your years of service brought honor to your name and great benefit to our community. I regret that we are met today under these circumstances.” The old man nodded to the judge.
The judge shuffled a few pages and began his statement. It went something like this: “Federal guidelines give me little leeway in sentencing cases like this. But since arguments for leniency have been made, I will discuss their merits one by one. While your wife was a full partner in your grow operation and had a history of drug abuse, she was not a police officer who put his fellow officers in jeopardy by sharing codes with an ex-convict. She did not declare her intention to kill police officers. Your level of misconduct is much higher than hers. As to your ‘crisis’…Most of the men and women who come through this court facing similar charges have not had the benefits that you received. They did not grow up in stable homes, did not go to college, could not find work in an honorable profession. You decided, for reasons I don’t understand, to betray your fellow officers in an attempt to “find yourself”. Shouldn’t police work have been fulfilling in and of itself? Serving others, putting your life on the line for fellow citizens is as worthwhile a life as any I know.”
Hollow Eyes wiped away a tear, and his lawyer rested his hand on the man’s back. They braced for the inevitable. The judge said, “I sentence you to ten years.” Hollow Eyes released a muffled sob.
The courtroom cleared, but the police officers lingered. They shook hands with each other, smiled grimly, muttered. Justice had been served. The traitor had been punished.
The reporter met me outside on the courthouse steps, and I showed him my sketches. He seemed pleased and excited. I had just witnessed the final act of a tragedy and felt otherwise. I said, “That was grim. It was like watching a slow motion train wreck.” He just smiled an all-in-a-day’s-work smile, marched over to his camera man and barked orders.