We Who Believe in Freedom
On July 18, 2019 a Lafayette judge ordered man's mouth duct-taped during sentencing hearing and then threatened to hold attorney in contempt for allegedly trying to record this outrageous behavior.This blog post responds to the incident detailed here: https://www.theadvocate.com/acadiana/news/courts/article_6bd768be-ae6a-11e9-a77b-97e1b73e472a.html
I'm not religious but I draw strength from gospel music. Something about the south in me. Something about where I grew up. Something about the bloody roots of these southern trees. Specifically, today, I'm listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock. Ella's Song. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” The song was written for Ella Baker, a civil rights activist who drew her incredible strength from a well of reserves of I'm not sure what and made community grassroots movements what they are today. Today. Today.
Today I'm driving with my friends Natalie and Amanda to Lafayette, Louisiana. It's a three-hour drive from our courthouse. The three of us have only known each other a few months. We all find ourselves here, at the Harris County Public Defender's Office in Houston, Texas from disparate places. Natalie has a sleek blonde bob and a flair for nice clothes. She tells people that she loves shopping and fighting. I'm not sure in what order. Amanda has eclectic taste, a mane of red hair cascading down her shoulders, a bohemian vibe with a nod to nerdy-chic. I love them both immediately.
Amanda used to work in Lafayette, where there are no case limits for public defenders and the system is overwhelmingly, unbelievably overworked, even in comparison to, say, Texas, or New Mexico, where I practiced recently. Amanda tells me stories of her time in Louisiana and I imagine her hunched over a dim computer screen in a dark office that leaves much to be desired, her hair crackling in the atmosphere behind her like flames.
Amanda and I are fairly new hires at our office here in Houston, and Natalie has been here for a couple of years already. Because her cases are the oldest, she has the most stuff set for trial, and for the past two months, Natalie has been battling it out in complicated jury trial after complicated jury trial, slogging through inefficient courts and the ridiculous jail to try and work up her other cases at night while she spends day after day in front of a jury box. Largely, the reason for the inordinate number of trials is that the prosecutors are refusing to evaluate their cases. Lacking training or discretion, they are unable to dismiss the cases that need to be dismissed or offer reasonable offers. Instead, they force wasteful trials, and Natalie, undaunted, swings her bob and announces “ready.”
Unbelievably, Natalie just got an acquittal on a hotly contested aggravated robbery case two days ago. She's set for trial again on Monday on a felony Evading case. She is exhausted.
The reason we are going to Lafayette today is because of Amanda's former colleague there, Michael Gregory. Last week, when a judge ordered a defendant's mouth duct-taped shut during a sentencing hearing, Michael allegedly pulled out his phone and recorded the judge's egregious behavior, the Defendant's resigned slump as the bailiff carried out the wretched orders. The judge, in a fit of pique reserved only for storybook villains and judges who think they aren't being observed, is threatening to hold Michael in contempt, and today is his contempt hearing. There is nothing we can do but sit and watch. We have to watch. If no one is allowed to record the judge, someone has to be there to tell everyone else what is happening. You guys. You guys. This is real. They are coming for us. Someone has to observe. When observation itself is a crime, the State has overreached. There's too much power. I can't sit still here. I can't sit still in my office anymore you guys. We have to go.
The three of us, the three witches, these three women, the three weird sisters, meet up at the courthouse in Houston in darkness. It's five a.m. and the rest of Houston, this huge and ugly and wonderful city on the bayou, is asleep still. On my drive to meet them there, I passed the increasingly large homeless encampments, and noticed, like I always do, the huge American flag displayed proudly outside one of the tents, right next to a rusty metal wheelchair. I imagine the person who lives in the tent, in the heat and the stink of the freeway, and my heart aches at his love for this screwed-up country.
We drink coffee and talk in Natalie's car on the way. Her makeup cakes in the corners of her eyes when she looks at me in the rearview mirror and I can see how tired she is, we all are. But we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
**Update -- Allison, Amanda, and Natalie arrived at the court house.