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Sitting With The Enemy

Sunday, 13 January 2013

(I'm still committed to a month or more focused mainly on books, but real life does intervene sometimes, and it is hard to ignore it.)

If you've never testified in a courtroom before, and I hadn't, there are a number of surprises that await you.

You are disarmed almost immediately, in a figurative sense, because as soon as you enter the courthouse, you must take off all of your metal objects, including your belt, and the contents of your pockets and something else that you don't think of until you've tried to walk through the screener the first time.  Just like the airport, you think.  There, though, you put up with it because you are probably headed somewhere that you want to go.  Here, you do it because lives and fortunes and circumstances are at stake and people who don't have things go their way may well try to act on that against the people who changed them.

When you are putting on your belt and you realize that you don't know where you are going, then you have to ask where the courtroom is.

"Third floor," the guard says.  And you remember because you were there before for the initial hearing and you entered through the back and sat down and watched.

With some slight confidence, you skip the elevator and walk the steps and trust that you will find the judge's name outside the door and walk in and sit down and get settled.

But you don't.  At the top of the stairs someone says, "Hi, Bob" and it startles you and you look to you right and see your friend's ex-wife's mother-in-law sitting on the bench, a woman you know but have not seen in all of the years since the divorce.  In an instant, you realize that she is no longer dyeing her jet black hair and that it is short and gray and makes her look even more severe.  Her greeting shows no emotion, but even when you knew her and she liked you, her greeting showed no emotion.  And then the ex-wife's current husband sticks his hand out and introduces himself like he has been waiting to meet you and then his father-in-law does the same and you know that you have walked into the middle of the "enemy camp."

So you shake hands and ask clarifying questions until you see your friend's wife and you indicate to them that you are going to over there and sit with her.

Of course, it makes total sense in terms of the law and the keeping witnesses from having their testimony polluted from hearing other witnesses.

But from a simple social aspect, it makes no sense at all.  They know why you are here and you know why they are here, but unlike the two principals who sit on opposite sides of the courtroom and the case and who communicate through their lawyers, you are expected to engage civilly, to make small talk, to commiserate with the other side's witnesses.

So you sit over there with her and they sit about 15 feet away, around the column, around the corner, but in plain view and so the two of you sit and gauge them while they no doubt gauge you.  You notice how often the new husband heads down on the elevator for a smoke (does he leave all of his metal things up here?).  You notice how much interaction, or lack thereof, there is between them.  You wonder why the father-in-law and not the father?  What will the ex-wife's mother testify to?  How well do they know each other?  How committed are they?

But mostly, you wait.  That is the other surprise.  Whatever time they may have told you that you would likely go on the stand, you wait hours beyond that.  You make a lot of small talk with each other, focused on or off the case, but you also talk to the guy cleaning the bathroom, and the logistics of how he can find out if there's anyone in the Women's Room before he heads in there.  You nod to other other people involved in other trials.  You turned your phone off in preparation for heading into the courtroom, but that was hours ago, so now texts and emails and games beckon.

And, you talk to those witnesses for the other side.  You can't help it.  They smoke, they have to use the bathroom, and they are every bit as bored as you are.  But it is a special boredom, for while the minutes drag and you have not much to do to occupy those minutes, you still dread what awaits should time ever pass.  And so they tell you about their cleaning business or their 5 bypasses.  They tell you about plane flights they will miss or things they have to do.  Like you, but moreso, you'd like to think, they make the battle inside the courtroom about them, outside of the courtroom sitting on these hard benches and dreading even lunch, because eating it will mean that you have been here far too long and that you will have to come back here after you eat and that means that whatever you eat will go down uneasily and wait to digest at some less stressful time.

And when, much later, you finally get in there and answer the questions and are reminded of all the turmoil and seriousness and how bitter it is and how you might help by saying what you say,still when you walk back outside that courtroom, you don't say anything more to those people who have sat all day on the other bench waiting to testify for the other side with everything at stake and who will be disappointed with the outcome you hope for and who will likely speak as poorly of you and your side as you will of them and theirs,  except, "You're next."

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