Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2004


Why do you think they called it

DOPE COURT

GHLIII

 

I've always had a difficult time with recreational drugs, and I'm not sure why. I went to college at Berkeley, fergawdsakes, in the late '60s, fergawdsakes, and in that time and place, marijuana was more popular than beer. I remember spring days when you could walk along the streets and smell those sweet, potent fumes wafting from every open window - not to mention one track or another of Abbey Road, almost as ubiquitous and almost as popular.

Yet I never tried it (marijuana, that is; like everyone else alive in 1969, I memorized Abbey Road). I wasn't hostile to it (marijuana, that is), just not interested, nor particularly social - for grass was the great social lubricant of the era. Who knows, if I'd been less chicken-livered, or less sensible (take your pick), I might have convinced my high school fantasy redheaded J------ that I was more than a hairy-palmed stalker. She'd grown into a Berkeley fantasy, you see, and smoked weed like a chimney.

Anyway, I'm already off-subject, which isn't really about how I've never been comfortable around recreational drugs. If that were what I was writing about, I'd talk about my New Orleans girlfriend from the '70s who went insane on speed and slashed her wrists, or the catastrophic consequences when friends - and one person far more than a friend - got into cocaine. No, all this chatter is mere prologue to the tale of my most intimate relationship with drugs, my seven years as public defender in the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana Dope Court.

Officially, its title was Drug Court, but lifelong Joycean punster that I wish I was, Dope Court is what it's always been to me. It began as an experiment, to take some of the weight off the other divisions of the 24th Judicial District in Jefferson Parish. It made sense. A huge percentage of the parish's criminal cases weren't, after all, respectably complicated crimes like murders or robberies, but simple matters which we came to call "throwdowns" or "hand-to-hands" - possessions or sales, usually of cocaine or its sinister offspring, crack. Devoting a court solely to disposition of drug crimes would free the other courts for less tedious, less repetitive work. So a retired judge was given a fat federal grant and a courtroom and a staff and two public defenders, one of which was me.

I backed into the job, drawing the assignment as an alternative to unemployment. It was July, 1993. Between then and June, 2000, when political sleaze - and other judges' lust for the federal money - closed the court, I handled hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, "throwdowns and hand-to-hands" - and it taught me one thing above all else: why do you think they call it dope?

 

Those hundreds of defendants accused of drug crimes had a lot in common. Most - by far - were black. Most - by far - were male. Most - by far - were young. Many - a good slice - had attitude.

My clients made no distinction between the white people prosecuting them and the white people defending them; that I was the one talking to them only made me a convenient outlet for their annoyance. Tell a defendant the sentence he was facing and I was "selling him out." When he drew jail time, it wasn't the judge or the D.A. or his own screw-up who gave it to him - it was "y'all" - all of us in the system, all of in the master race. A few issues ago I told the story of the former Angola boxing champ who grew so enraged when I told him what the district attorney wanted that he spat at me - and missed. It took five deputies to put him on the floor. That pitiful loser was the extreme edge of a typical hostility, but - can you blame him? Look at what such people faced when they made it into our division.

If the guy in the dock was charged with simple possession, the evidence against him was usually simple indeed: the cop who'd pulled the contraband out of his pocket during a search, or who claimed to have seen him drop or throw it down during a chase. Sometimes the officer would insist that he'd seen the "throwdown" from a distance of many yards, in the midst of a milling crowd, or in the dead of night - I encountered more examples of super-vision at Dope Court than I ever did when I worked at DC Comics.

If the miscreant were charged with distribution, a more serious crime, he often had a more reliable witness against him: videotape.

Most distribution cases I saw - and still see - were undercover buys made from unmarked police cars manned by narcs and equipped with miniature video cameras. The narcs would cruise suspect - read: black - neighborhoods, trolling for street corner dealers. They'd spot one, pull over, and when the target stuck his face into the window, ask for a twenty. That's street slang for a rock of crack cocaine. Crack, for those blessed with ignorance of the subject, is powdered coke mixed with baking soda or some other agent to make a hard, taffy-like "cookie," every piece of which, when smashed, can be suspended in a wad of Brillo or other mesh, melted, and inhaled. The first rush, I'm told, is heavenly. And hellishly addictive.

Anyway, upon hearing the officer's fatal question, the soon-to-be-defendant would produce a rock, from palm, pocket or his own cheek, and trade it for an engraving of Andrew Jackson held up by the agent. The exchange would preferably - from the cops' point of view - occur in front of the miniature video lens, and the record of same would be produced in court.

(Strangely enough, the most successful undercover narcs were pretty policewomen who claimed to be strippers from Bourbon Street. For some reason dealers flocked to their windows. Wonder why ...)

The movie wouldn't be the prosecutor's best evidence, of course. The tape only verified the testimony of the narc. Even if the actual hand-to-hand sale occurred off-screen, if the agent was solid in his testimony, the defendant was toast. But the movies were the great closer. When we showed them to the jury box crammed with "pumpkins" - defendants in Jefferson Parish wore orange jumpsuits, along with their accessories, handcuffs and leg irons - some wag always called for popcorn, and the defendant involved almost always chose to cop a plea. What can you say when it's obviously your face up there?

If there were funny moments in Drug Court, they came from the videotapes. There was the woman who made her sale wearing a D.A.R.E. tee shirt advertising a local anti-drug campaign. There was the transvestite who made his sale in drag. The judge, worried the poor schnook would be butchered in jail, called the state capitol to find out where vulnerable gays were segregated, and ordered him sent there. There was the girl who spotted the camera and smiled, "Y'all got me on tape, don't you?" (She got probation - the D.A. liked her.) Best of all was the goofball who sold crack to a narc, on camera, while barechested. He was covered in tattoos, which was fatal enough, but one on his shoulder gave his name. Sigmund. "Uhh, Sigmund," I asked him, "what am I supposed to do?" One pitiable dude was on video for 39 minutes riding hither and yon with an undercover, but the D.A. had to nolle prosse - release - a gal who did the same thing, when the idiot agent shared his cocaine with her - thus becoming a distributor himself!

Suggested defenses to the tape evidence sometimes wandered into ridiculous realms. It was bad enough when a guy with tattoos or scars on his face would protest, "That's not me!" - but after some jailhouse genius spread the term "special effects" around the cellblocks, lunacy reigned. We defense lawyers were ordered to tell our juries - with straight faces - that the state of Louisiana had paid Disney millions of dollars to morph Danny Doper's face onto an actor's body - just to convict him. No wonder I began to resent many of my clients. No wonder I made up my own bitter, private verse:

Take yo' plea / and do yo' time

And shut yo' lips / you piece of slime.

(Not that the tapes couldn't help a client as well as hang him, or her. One girl beat the rap when the tape showed a typically skeletal crackhead slinging rocks to the undercover narc. The defendant had spent months in the pokey stuffing her face with starchy jail food. She'd gained so much weight the jury couldn't recognize her!)

The pumpkins' resistance to plain fact was certainly an irritation, but who could blame them? During the '90s the Louisiana legislature went berserk and ordered high mandatory sentences for cocaine sales. Five years hard labor, first offense, no parole or probation or suspension of sentence. Even with good time halving the actual jail stay, that was still ridiculous - every non-violent first offender deserves a shot at probation. Matters grew even worse when Jefferson Parish elected a new and ambitious district attorney.

This guy saw drug prosecution as a ticket to greater popularity - and power. Dope Court was the train where he cashed that ticket. One of his policies was simply annoying: boost statistics by forcing a trial per week. The deputy D.A.s assigned to Drug Court would offer sham plea bargains to bully our people into trials - or condition acceptable pleas on our joining a charade. We'd call in a jury pool, select the first twelve butts to hit the seats, then plead out. The jury members looked at us like we were crazy.

That was ludicrous, but it was also harmless. Not harmless was the D.A.'s policy to charge everyone who could be charged as a repeat offender as a repeat offender. This led to some true injustice.

Under Louisiana law, a person proven a repeat offender is given a radically increased sentence - one half to twice the maximum sentence available for the base crime. So someone charged with possession of cocaine, which ran from zero (or probation) to five years in prison, could get a sentence of two-and-a-half to ten years in jail for being caught as a repeater. Without good time: no time off for good behavior. Guys accused of selling drugs - cocaine or marijuana - as a second offender faced fifteen to sixty years behind bars. For third offenders, it was even worse. For fourth offenders - well, forget it. The sentence ended when he did.

The deputy D.A.s had no leeway. If they didn't crucify the defendants according to their boss' policy, they faced being fired. And while I got along well with most of the guys I worked with on a regular basis, some special cases were handled by gleaming robots from "upstairs" - who judged their success by the number of decades they could take from the defendants' lives. When I remember the sheer sadistic joy with which one D.A. announced that he'd found a law allowing for a 25-year sentence - and applied it to a sweet, dumb street kid who had simply led the narcs to a dealer - well, remember my mantra: dopers who think they're cool impress me as assholes; fascists who think they're cool impress me much less.

The people getting hurt, too, were often addicts themselves. The hardcore dealers who made a living off the crack trade had caught on quickly to the videotapes and their clout. So they would corral addicts who needed their wares, hand them five rocks, and say, "Sell four, keep the fifth." Or they'd approach locals on fixed incomes and offer to help them out with a little street corner job. Their own faces never showed on tape -so in the seven years I worked at Dope Court, I can count the times the state prosecuted real dealers on one hand. It's as true on the streets as it is in Iraq: the backline creeps keep the profit, while the frontline shmos take the heat.

You could fight, of course, but dope cases were hard to win. D.A.s in Jefferson generally screened their cases carefully, which meant that few defendants reached the courtroom who weren't slam-dunk losers.

The D.A.s had an additional advantage: they practiced in one of the most conservative venues in existence. JP jurors were fierce Republicans and occasionally overt racists. Never to be forgotten was the pitiful woman who acted as a juror in one possession case. The client was an intelligent kid, not at all aggressive or nasty - and had been in the class she taught when he was in the second grade! She approached the D.A. after convicting him - on minuscule evidence, to my way of thinking - and, her voice quivering, asked, "You don't think he'll come after me, do you?"

Need I add that she was white and the defendant was black? Verily, Dope Court taught me more about race relations in New Orleans than anything else in my thirty years of living here.

Still, all is never lost. That client was charged with possession after a tiny packet of powder was found behind the seat of the police car in which he was transported. Another client, a young lady I'll call Tanesha - I love African-sounding names; they're pretty and creative - faced a similar case.

Tanesha had some factors on her side. She was sweet, attractive, not threatening in the slightest. The jury that we sat turned out to be six white women, nary a balls-to-the-wall/hang'em-high/law'n'order nut in the group. The cops who had found the dope in their police car, after taking Tanesha in on an unrelated matter, were young and inexperienced witnesses, who didn't tote their logbooks into court.

The purpose of the logbooks would be to answer obvious defense questions: "Who else rode in the back seat of your vehicle that day?" "How long had it been since you'd tossed - i.e., searched - the car for planted contraband?" Relying on memory alone, the cops didn't know. When Tanesha took the stand in her own behalf, the D.A. couldn't shake her - I fretted that he'd call attention to her long, long fingernails, perfect for pushing a cocaine packet deep behind the seat. However, instead, he shed his suit jacket and, mimicking having his hands cuffed behind his back, pushed his fingers down into his pants.

The D.A. was trying to demonstrate that my client could have reached cocaine she had stashed in her jeans, however tight they were. He danced around with such enthusiasm that I was tempted to ask the judge, "Your honor, does the State intend to show us the Full Monty?"

I didn't think of another obvious line for my closing: "Ladies, if the jeans fit, you must acquit!" But we won anyway. It was a signal moment: my only Not Guilty verdict in Dope Court.

 

Drug Court was frustrating in more ways than that. For one thing, the cases themselves were dull, presenting no interesting legal challenges, requiring no research - hand-to-hands or throwdowns, phooey. It was stagnant and stagnating. I liked the judges, though, especially the ex-priest who advised the pumpkins, "Y'all thinks I's a big pussy, but hey, I's tough!" - which knocked the D.A. and I to the floor. I got along well with most of the district attorneys, too - seldom whupped, but occasionally scared.

But the major frustration was with dope work itself. If it would make any difference, I'd like every smug, self-satisfied druggie I've known - in college, in fandom, in normal life - to see some of the faces I saw there. True, the prosecutions were occasionally malicious, and the sentences often unnecessary, even sadistic. And, on the other hand, there is no denying that most drug criminals, like most criminals, period, wore their orange jumpsuits out of their own choice, their own folly. But, dear Jesus, the suffering. The Jamaican "mule" who had transported balloons full of cocaine to America inside her stomach. The exquisitely beautiful young mother whose addiction drove her to live in a derelict trailer and turn tricks to buy rock. (Nearly got into a fist fight with a bailiff over her, when the thug laughed at her plight.) The girl I got released who was a headline the next week, blown away in the projects trying to buy cocaine. The depthless, endless march of gutted lives.

As I say, in 2000 other judges, perhaps jealous of Drug Court's federally-provided budget, killed it off. They substituted a limited - very limited - system of psychiatric evaluations and supervision. It wasn't a bad idea, of course, but I could've filled it to capacity in an afternoon.

The drug laws have been mollified by the legislature - the minimum sentence for a first time cocaine sale is now two years, not five, although marijuana sale still draws a nickel, go figure.. Our chief judge, retired again, sued Exxon for dumping radioactive material on his land - and on paper, is now the richest man in Louisiana. The D.A.s still work their will in Jefferson, which remains the least racially friendly venue in the United States. Me, I'm upriver in St. John, earning less money but defending better and more challenging cases - winning a lot more, too. I still draw the occasional drug case, because dope is here, too, as accepted as beer, death and failure in America's loathed and self-loathing underclass. And why not? Human greed, folly and despair are constants, after all, in this best of all possible worlds.

 

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