Dr. Pepper and BBQ Lays: A Taste of Humanity
We sat in the judge's chambers discussing the schedule and potential legal issues for our impending two-week, four-defendant, allegedly gang-related, multiple bank robbery preliminary hearing. To close the conversation, the judge had a unique request: she wanted my co-counsel and I to ask our clients what snacks and drinks they'd like during the hearing. She'd pick up refreshments and permit our clients to have them on breaks.We sat in the judge's chambers discussing the schedule and potential legal issues for our impending two-week, four-defendant, allegedly gang-related, multiple bank robbery preliminary hearing. To close the conversation, the judge had a unique request: she wanted my co-counsel and I to ask our clients what snacks and drinks they'd like during the hearing. She'd pick up refreshments and permit our clients to have them on breaks.
This judge's courtroom had always been a favorite among attorneys because of its regularly stocked, accessible snack table full of Red Vines, Reese's Pieces, granola bars, and coffee. Public defenders, private lawyers, and district attorneys alike would regularly grab a bite or a cup o joe while waiting for their cases to be called. The accused, however, would be relegated, just as in every other courtroom, to water and nothing more. A clear divide.
This time, though, the snacks weren't just for the attorneys; the judge wanted these four men, often reduced to nameless “defendants,” to share in the feasting. My client, a 22 year old young man named Antonio, had been in jail for about 4 months leading up to this preliminary hearing. Unable to afford bail, Antonio was deprived of his usual amenities except for what was available via the jail commissary. When I asked him what he wanted, he had specific things in mind: Dr. Pepper and barbecue flavored Lay's chips. One of his co-defendants asked for Sprite and Cool Ranch Doritos while another requested beef jerky and Coke. The fourth accused, the eldest, was too proud (and/or stubborn) to ask for anything. My co-counsel and I wrote out a shopping list for the judge on a yellow Post-It note.
The next morning, the judge called the attorneys back into the storage area adjacent to her chambers. The judge had done some grocery shopping. The mini fridge was fully stocked with soda cans, including Antonio's Dr. Peppers. Various bags of chips and beef jerky littered a side table with styrofoam bowls beside them. We could come back during breaks for soda and to fill up a bowl with our client's snack of choice.
Later that morning, after the first round of examining the prosecution's witnesses, the judge took a break. I went back and grabbed a Dr. Pepper can and some BBQ Lays. I poured Antonio and myself half the can each in our courtroom styrofoam cups. We conversed about family, our childhood neighborhoods, and high school football as we sipped soda and munched on chips. The other attorneys and their clients did the same. Even the elder co-defendant, after seeing everyone else partake, joined the party. The bailiff would sometimes refill our drinks once they ran empty. Scents of barbeque Lays, Cool Ranch Doritos, Sprite, and beef jerky filled the courtroom along with nondescript chatter. Each break for the next several days was the same: chips, soda, snacks, and conversation. Lawyers in their suits and clients in their jail-issued clothes, all sitting around snacking and chatting. A courtroom mixer.
The judge's compassion and kindness allowed us all, public defenders, private attorneys, the bailiff and the accused, to discover our shared humanity. Through the conduits of soda and chips, all of us were kids in a school cafeteria again. Innocence restored.
I, despite my suit and tie, wasn't my bar number, a law school graduate or an experienced public defender. I was just a boy who craved good company, sugary, carbonated drinks and unhealthy but delicious snacks.
For those brief moments in time, Antonio and the other accused, despite their colorful county jail clothes and slippers, felt free again. They were unshackled and could finally speak for themselves. They weren't their case numbers, a line number on a court calendar, charges, or rap sheets. They weren't alleged gang members. They were more than their identifying "PFN" numbers on their jail wristbands and more than their housing unit at the jail. Like “Red” and his fellow inmates drinking beer on the rooftop in Shawshank Redemption after Andy Dufresne's heroics, things for Antonio and his co-accused felt “normal again… if only for a short while.”
Antonio's case went through prelim and ultimately resolved on the doorstep of trial. I last saw him several weeks ago at his sentencing. I'm not sure when or if I'll see him again. Now, every time I'm out and see Dr. Pepper on a menu or on a fountain soda array, I get some. With each sip, I think of Antonio, my fellow human being. I'm taken back to our moments together in that courtroom, drinking soda and eating chips. I taste our humanity.