A law-abiding social studies teacher, Alice is stunned to find herself a defendant in Central Court at the Lebanon County Courthouse.
Because her neighbor has sworn that Alice tore up his lawn with her SUV, police have charged her with criminal mischief. Alice has explained she was grocery shopping at the time of the incident, but since her neighbor still insists it was her, she must now attend a preliminary hearing, where a magisterial district judge (DJ) will either dismiss her case or send it to the Court of Common Pleas.
Despite having a time-stamped grocery receipt to prove her innocence, Alice is nervous about the hearing. Her attorney, however, says of the complaining neighbor, "Don't worry. He won't show. The case will be dismissed."
Alice arrives at Central Court at 8am. Nearly 300 seats fill the "courtroom," an auditorium in the basement of Lebanon's Municipal Building. Brightly colored placards tell victims and witnesses — some of them clustered in small, supportive groups — to sit on the left, while defendants, their families and friends are on the right. The first few rows are reserved for imprisoned defendants.
On stage, sitting at a long cafeteria-style table, are Lebanon County's six district judges. Partitions separate the DJs — three men and three women — from each other. These DJs must decide whether or not to send defendants' cases to a higher court.
The district attorney's website describes why Central Court was established in 2002 to consolidate the county's preliminary hearings. Previously, prosecutors, defense attorneys, arresting officers and staff from the DA's Victim/Witness Assistance Program had to travel all over the county to appear before the various district judges, once called "district justices."
Although everyone entering Central Court is urged to speak quietly and minimally, a relatively steady level of chatter prevails. Sitting or standing before each DJ at any given time are the defendant, a prosecutor from the district attorney's office, a defense lawyer or public defender, a law enforcement officer, the victim and/or a witness. A low-key but constant buzz of activity permeates the courtroom, yet conversations between the defendants and the DJs are virtually inaudible except to those on stage.
Alice is one of 131 defendants whose cases will be processed today. Some will waive their right to a preliminary hearing. Others will ask for a delay in presenting their cases (a "continuance").
When a man learns his defense attorney has obtained a continuance for him, he remains apprehensive. "You're free to go," the attorney says. "Don't worry. Nothing bad will happen.... I'll send you a letter."
Waivers and continuances are handled first. As she waits her turn, Alice takes notice of everything happening around her. She is pleasantly surprised by a pervasive atmosphere of respect and congeniality on both sides of the aisle.
A state trooper approaches a defendant, warmly shaking his hand. "I bet they went to high school together," Alice thinks. Because she has always lived in the area, she knows Lebanon County to be a very small world indeed.
To cement her rapidly growing impression that virtually anyone may end up in Central Court — as victim, witness or defendant — she recognizes a friend on the victim side of the courtroom. Someone stole items from his car. He tells her he has filled out a form asking for restitution in the amount of $250.
A Victim/Witness program coordinator tells Alice's friend he can leave, saying, "The defendant has waived the right to a preliminary hearing." She thanks him for coming in. To another victim, she explains, "The defendant has been given a continuance."
District Attorney Dave Arnold talks to someone behind Alice. This man has posted bail for a defendant who hasn't appeared today. "He bounced," the man says bitterly, wondering if he will ever recover his bail money.
While the DA himself refers to Central Court as "controlled chaos," Alice sees it as a well-oiled machine — everyone performing calmly and efficiently, whether it be the "clipboard lady" who checks in defendants, or the chief public defender, who greets clients as they arrive.
There is a constant shuffle of prosecutors, attorneys, victims, witnesses and defendants, including incarcerated defendants in various-colored prison jumpsuits who are brought into the courtroom a few at a time.
Deputies working for Sheriff Mike DeLeo have transported inmates from the County Prison to the courthouse. Entering the building by the back door, these incarcerated prisoners wear leg irons and handcuffs locked to belly chains around their waists. They then wait their turn in holding cells until a state trooper or police officer escorts them into the auditorium and finally up the three steps to the stage, where they sit before the district judges.
Supporters of these jailed defendants wave across the aisle, trying to catch the inmates' attention. An elderly man spots his grandson. "Jimmy, it's me — Grandpa," he shouts, as if attending a school play.
Personal contact between inmates and their loved ones is rare, yet a patrolman lets a young prisoner speak briefly with his father, who lectures the boy sternly. After this brief encounter, the father walks away with tears in his eyes. In the back of the courtroom, a woman, dazed and distraught, mutters, "Pray for me. Pray for me and my family."
A Lebanon City Police sergeant repeatedly checks and re-checks the district judges' list of inmates. He coordinates the systematic influx of prisoners into the courtroom and keeps things moving smoothly for the DJs.
On the surface, the continuous flow of both jailed and unjailed defendants looks like a seamless process, but when it appears that one inmate's name has inadvertently been omitted from the list of prisoners, a sheriff's deputy must make a special trip to the county lockup to get him. The situation is quickly resolved, as the Central Court roll call goes on, seemingly without a hitch, thanks to the problem-solving efforts of all those involved.
Approaching the DJs on stage, some defendants show casual nonconcern. Others, such as a man with two young children, ascend the steps with visible dread. After learning he will be tried in a higher court, the man leaves the auditorium with his court appearance dates in hand.
A defendant sitting near Alice faces charges of criminal trespass. His attorney, confident of favorable results, assures him, "I think you've got a shot." Half an hour later, the news is good. Although the man's defense attorney has said the DA's Office does not normally get involved with plea-bargaining at this level, the prosecution has agreed to a lesser offense. The defendant must pay fines totaling $600. He is happy with this decision.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the complainant, too, is satisfied, but grumbles, "This makes the second time I've had to take time off work." Of the defendant, he says, "I just want him to stay away."
Other scenarios unfold. A family learns that their loved one will be released from the county prison on bail. First, though, he must return to prison to collect his belongings. "It's like checking out of a hotel," the man's defense attorney explains. "He has paperwork to fill out before they can let him go."
Finally, at the conclusion of Central Court, Alice's turn comes. Her attorney's instincts have been correct. The aggrieved neighbor hasn't shown up. The DJ listens to a quick summary of the police report and examines Alice's alibi evidence, then dismisses the charges against her. She is free to go.
Not only is Alice relieved at her own outcome, but having sat through three hours of Central Court, she now knows a bit more about the justice system in Lebanon County. To her attorney she says excitedly, "I can hardly wait to tell my social studies class about this whole experience!" i
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