In the court of public opinion, decisions aren't always easy

Friday, May 11, 2012

Courtroom 1 in the Putnam County Courthouse qualifies as a legal sauna on a recent afternoon before Adult Probation Officer Cody Tillotson takes the law into his own hands and opens a window on the north side of the building.

Judge Matt Headley is running a couple of minutes late for the 1 o'clock session of Putnam Circuit Court this afternoon. Word is he's been out pronouncing his own brand of justice on some Hoosier wild turkeys this morning.

The wild bunch he will encounter next will test his patience -- and no doubt his trigger finger -- even more. Luckily for members of today's "Perp Parade," the judge apparently has reserved more sympathy for them than he has the turkeys.

The real interesting defendant on this day, who admittedly has brought us across the street and up the rickety courthouse elevator to hear her story, is seated in the spectator area. Crisply dressed, she looks for all the world as though she might be headed off to church or a business meeting instead of the Indiana Department of Correction.

Not so the rest of the day's defendants. Awkwardly in orange, they trudge in single file to take their places on the bench along the south wall of the courtroom. All the while I'm thinking to myself, "Man, nobody looks good in orange" -- until I realize that twice recently I have donned a satiny orange shirt and tie combination for an event, only to be told, "That is your color."

Might be true. But from where I sit, it sure doesn't look like there is much of a future in it.

It is an odd lot of alleged perpetrators going before Judge Headley. Theirs are cases that clog court calendars everywhere but aren't even a blip on the "Law & Order" or "Criminal Minds" TV radar.

First up is a Putnam scanner regular. A name we'd all recognize. For his latest misdeed he apparently has already spent nearly six months in the Putnam County Jail just getting to this point in the crime-and-punishment game.

Granted, he is legally due his day in court, but this doesn't look at all good for him. Apparently his latest illegal activity has all been caught on videotape.

And back he goes to the PCJ as we move along to inmate No. 2.

This is a fellow who puts Judge Headley in a real quandary. Our favorite felon admits to 35 years of some form of drug abuse or another.

His past is filled with the use of opium, hash, LSD, Quaaludes, PCP, crack, meth and marijuana with some regularity since the Carter Administration. Seems like he's done everything but drink the hand sanitizer to get high, chalking up 10 adult offenses.

This time he's been in the jail for nearly five months -- a forced period of sobriety but sobriety nonetheless. He tells the court he needs treatment and doesn't consider himself a threat to the public, only to himself.

Admittedly, he has no place to stay should the judge allow him back on the streets. Reuniting with his mother won't happen, he says. And he has less than $150 to his name, so it's easy to assume most of that will be gone within moments of any release.

Deputy Prosecutor Justin Long is speaking for himself and Probation Officer Teresa Parrish alike when he tells the judge, "We're both at a loss as to what to do."

"Quite frankly," the judge responds, "I don't know what to do either."

Seems the last time the defendant was a free man, he was on probation when he used meth and then allowed police to search his car where they found drug paraphernalia. That, of course, clearly violates his probation.

The easy sentence would be to impose the probation violation and send him to prison for three years to dry out.

"My biggest problem is if I let you out today," Headley says, "you'll be sleeping on the courthouse square. There's no homeless shelter.

"As far as society is concerned," the judge continued, "you're going to get all jacked up on methamphetamine and step out in front of a car and get hurt or cause that car to swerve to miss you, and someone else -- maybe someone I know and love, gets hurt."

Grasping for a way to be Solomon-like in his sentencing here, Headley finally arrives at what he believes is a fair outcome.

The defendant gets time served to wrap up an old theft case, a three-year sentence for his meth issue, with 18 months of that to be executed in the prison system. He gets two years probation for the paraphernalia indiscretion.

The judge adds that he will reconsider executing a portion of the sentence if the inmate can get into a drug treatment program.

Headley sends him off with what seems a sincere "best of luck, hopefully you can lick your addiction."

Of course, many -- most perhaps -- cannot. That is part of the quandary that makes days in court like this far from routine.

Next up is a stocky, dark-haired young man whose appearance on the docket causes the judge to remark, "You're here again."

And his case is further proof that the cover-up can be worse than the crime.

Possession of marijuana was the original offense, only to be compounded by the defendant's failure to report to his probation officer within the prescribed 48-hour timeframe or even after being sent a letter to appear. So now the charges include probation violation from a previous offense.

Judge Headley can scarcely contain his knowing smile as he listens to a convoluted story in which everyone other than the defendant is to blame for his problems.

Seems that a friend had picked him up following his release on bond from the Putnam County Jail, driving him to Indianapolis under the pretense of helping him move something.

Instead this would-be buddy stole the defendant's cell phone, took money a relative had provided for court costs and left the man in some part of Indy where he knew no one and apparently there were no telephones or police stations.

"How did you get back here today?" the judge asked.

The defendant said he picked up aluminum cans and sold them until he had enough money for a taxi back to Greencastle.

"How much was that?" Headley wanted to know.

The answer was an amazing $120.

"That's a lot of cans," the judge suggested. "How many cans was that?"

"A lot, your honor," the defendant replied.

Judge Headley wasn't buying much of what the defendant was selling, ordering the man held without bond until his next court hearing.

"Your honor, I am supposed to start a job at Taco Bell tonight," he pleaded.

Shaking his head, the judge wasn't about to start the legal process all over again.

"Sorry," Headley said. "You're just going to have to reapply. Fast-food places have a lot of turnover anyway."

Just another day in court ...