One Day in the Real America

Loretta Nall in front of Alabama StatehouseLoretta Nall in front of Alabama StatehouseI went back to court on Thursday, September 28, 2006 in Tallapoosa County to continue the appeals process in my misdemeanor marijuana possession case. This is year four of this case and I am way past ready to have it over and done with. It is beginning to look like that will never happen though. Whatever happened to the right to a fair and speedy trial?
The week before, when my attorney and I got the notice to appear in court, I learned that he was again unable to be there due to having full calendar that particular day. For the last two years, since this particular attorney took over my case for the appeal, he has asked the court to just set a trial date and give him a month’s notice because we have no intention of pleading guilty. He needed a month’s notice because he is one of Alabama’s most prominent capital punishment defense attorney’s and seeing how they like to fry folks down here you can imagine he is probably a busy feller’.

The court has repeatedly refused to honor our request and as a result we have had to file repeated motions to continue the case and I have had to appear in court three to four times a year in order to re-enter a plea of NOT GUILTY. When I found out that my attorney was not going to be able to attend this court date I asked him to withdraw from the case and said I would ask the judge to appoint me a new attorney who is local. Before I asked him to file the motion to withdraw he had already filed another motion to continue. He then filed a motion to withdraw.

I went to court thinking that the judge would rule on the motion to withdraw and appoint me an attorney and then set a trial date.

When I got there I had to pass through a metal detector run by a human weeble-wobble
. Remember those? “Weebles wobble but the won’t fall down.” He bellowed to me, “No one allowed in the courtroom except lawyers, defendants and court employees. What are you?”

Ain’t that a hell of a question? I thought of many unconventional and unexpcted answers I could have given him but stuck with, “I am a defendant.”

Officer Weeble Wobble: “Got any kinves in your purse?”

Me: “No.”

Officer Weeble Wobble: “Got a cell phone?”

Me: “Yes, but it is turned off.”

Officer Weeble Wobble didn’t open my handbag or pass it through the metal detector but held it as I went through. I could have had a whole arsenal in there (not that I would do such a thing..mind you)and they would not have known. That makes me wonder why anyone is being paid to run the metal detector at all if they are not really going to check handbags manually or run them through the detector. Another waste of taxpayer dollars. Officer Weeble Wobble told me to go in and have a seat on the left-hand side.

I went into the courtroom and took a seat near the front. I had planned to use the time before my case was called to observe the sentencing of non-violent drug offenders and the general circus that IS criminal court in Alabama and likely everywhere else in the country.

I saw defense attorneys and cops on the side of the prosecution chatting it up like old friends while the courtroom filled up with the usual suspects. An almost nedless parade of the black, the poor white, the hispanic, the incarcerated in their stripes and shackels, the dumb.

One young black woman came in and wandered around for a moment as though she was lost. The right side of the courtroom was empty, as everyone had been instructed to sit on the left. She sat down on the right side for a minute then got up and moved behind me. After a few seconds she tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Is this the left side of the courtroom? I don’t wanna sit on the wrong side and get these folks mad at me.” I told her that it was the left-hand side of the courtroom.

It would have been funny except that she was serious and I wondered what she could have possibly done that she could be held responsible for? She had some very obvious mental problems. She seemed more like a small child if you know what I mean. I felt very sorry for her because I knew she did not possess the faculties to really understand what was happening in court. I hoped that she had a good attorney but doubted it.

From the back of the courtroom comes the bellow of Officer Weeble Wobble, “Once you enter the courtroom you cannot leave again until after your case is called!” This particular rule along with barring any witnesses from the courtroom infuriates me to no end. I do not believe it is legal. How can I be treated like I am already an inmate who has to ask permission to leave the courtroom to go to the bathroom when I have not been convicted by a jury of my peers of any crime? How can the courtroom, which is a public arena, suddenly become off limits to witnesses, the public and the media? I have written about this before and I am working on a project that aims to stop it among many other things.

I wasn’t the only one who took offense at witnesses being kept out of the courtroom. One woman came in loudly mumbling “They gone make me show out with this bullshit of not lettin’ my husband in here with can they keep witnesses out of the courtroom?” I scooted down the bench and exchanged contact information with her because she is a perfect recruit for that little project I am working on. Another really young girl came in looking scared. She took the seat next to me and asked why they wouldn’t let witnesses in. I asked her how old she was because she really looked like a kid and I just couldn’t believe the court would be stupid enough to prosecute a minor without their parents or guardian present. She told me she was 21. I told her that I didn’t know why or how in the legal sense witnesses were kept out of the courtroom. I also told her about my project and exchanged information with her as well.

By 9:20 the benches on both sides of the courtroom were filled to capacity. The judge came in and said good morning and began instructing defendants of their rights. He then announced that there were some new senencing guidelines going into effect officially on October 1 but that he was committed to implementing them in his courtroom that day and from here on out. I was very pleased to hear this as I worked on some of the bills in the package that Governor Riley will sign into law on October 1. I am not convinced it will ease overcrowding and know a few who work in the DOC who say it will make things worse. Either way it was a good opportunity for me to evaluate which parts are good and which parts are bad.

The judge instructed the attorneys to fully discuss with their clients all the possible ranges of sentences and to use the worksheet to fully illustrate to clients how the new guidelines worked. He then turned them loose to work out the plea deals for those who were willing to take a plea bargain.

The attorneys, most of whom had never laid eyes on their clients before, lined up across the front bannister and began to call out names, “So and so…is so and so in the courtroom?” Now, what kind of reasonably good defense can you expect if you have never even met your lawyer before plea day in court? I mean, don’t lawyers and defendants need to talk about the facts of the case, discover what evidence the prosecution has and so forth?

I sat and watched as appointed attorneys all but forced their clients to take the plea deal being offered by the prosecution by using the fear of what the client ‘might get’ if they took it to trial. It was disgusting. Only a few brave souls held their ground and demanded a jury trial.

All day Thursday every person who came before the judge on a felony pot charge
was given just a few months of unsupervised probation but were ordered to pay huge fines if they were a first time offender. Defendants who were caught with harder drugs were given supervised probation. The only drug offender that went to jail was
sentenced to 15 years for cooking meth. Harder drug offenders were also ordered
to court referral to be placed in treatment. I am not sure what the court referral situation is here in my county but I will find out. In many places it is a ripoff…a huge one.

It makes me very angry that first time drug offenders were slapped with a $1000 fine that goes to fund the Tallapoosa County Narcotics Task Force.

So, now these bastards have gotten it to where they can kick in your door,
terrorize everyone in the house, maybe shoot a pet pooch or two, steal your property, haul you to jail and to court and then make you pay them for it? I don’t remember that being part of the sentencing package.

In addition to the $1000 fine there was a fine of $100 levied to go into a trust fund for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and a $25 to $50 fine payable to the victims trust fund. What victims? People using drugs and not harming anyone else in the process DO NOT HAVE VICTIMS…hence the term VICTIMLESS CRIME. What’s up with that? Length of probation was relative to how long it would take to pay off the fines imposed by the court. Some defendants got ten years worth of probation because they were on a fixed income and unable to pay more than $25 a month. People were warned that if they missed a payment their probation would be revoked and they would be sent to the penitentary. I see a large number of those people behind bars before six months has passed. I don’t see how this will alleviate prison overcrowding or save taxpayers money.

The day dragged on and on. The docket was not called in alphabetical order so I had no inkling of when my case would be called. We broke for lunch, came back for 2 hours took another break for 10 minutes and came back. By this time it was 4 p.m., my 9 year old daughter had to get off the school bus alone because I had the car and my husband hadn’t made it to court yet to get the car so he could get home with our daughter. I never leave my daughter home alone. Ever. My son is older and sometimes stays here alone for a few minutes and once he has watched his sister for a few minutes but she had never been home alone before. By the time my husband made it home to her she was frantic and in tears.

All in all I sat in court 11 grueling hours only to find out that the motion to continue in my case had been ruled on the day before and that the judge had not seen a motion from my attorney to withdraw from my case. No one bothered to call me and let me know I did not, in reality, have to be in court at all that day.

Finding that out after sitting on that hard church-bench in such a tense and unpleasant atmosphere all day caused me to mouth off at the judge. I said, “Judge I have been sitting out here for 11 hours and you’re telling me that I didn’t need to be here at all?” He answered, “I’ve been here 11 hours too.” I said, “That’s your job.” My husband took me by the arm and said, “Let’s go, Loretta!” and led me out of the courtroom.

That was a very wise move. Had I stayed another second or if my husband had not been allowed in the courtroom there at the end I would very likely be in jail today for contempt or whatever it is they charge you with for being a smart-ass to a judge. I actually like the judge and feel sort of bad for snapping at him. He is trying to follow the guidelines and he had a long day too. I’m still pissed though that the court failed in its responsibility to inform me that I did not have to be in court that day.

On Friday I did did TalkBack Live on Channel 8 about my court appearance and the write-in campaign. It was a great day for that show as the top news in Montgomery was the capture of a cop shooter who shot a Montgomery police officer the day before. First the Mayor and police chief were on, then I was on and the Governor Riley was on to defend his membership in the all white boys club of the Alabama Grand Masonic Lodge.

My segment was about 5 minutes and I discussed my case, the absurd amounts of money being wasted on it and thousands of others just like it and what is happening in the race for Governor. I took live call-in questions about my plans for public education and my stance on legalizing all drugs. One was a comment that “This is Alabama and no exceptions will be made for people like you when it comes to pot.”

I am not sure what the point of that statement was as I am a native Alabamian and did not need to be reminded of my geographic location. I also didn’t understand what the ‘people like me’ reference meant either. I told the caller that I am aware of my geographic location and also painfully aware of which exceptions are made and which are not.

While I was waiting to go on the air at Channel 8 one of my favorite rock station DJ’s in Montgomery came out of the soundroom and introduced himself. He told me he had wanted to meet me for a long time and always missed me when I came to the radio station to do a show or cut ads. He said he was a big fan and that I had his vote.

It’s downright surreal when you are a celebrity to the local celebrities.

So, my friends, the campaign rolls on and I am confident that I will get many more votes than either of my opponents are expecting me to get. I cannot wait until election day. Please make a final contribution to my campaign to ensure that I will be able to make all of my appearances in October and November. I have many remaining dates scheduled to speak around the state. October will be the busiest month of all. HELP me make it a huge success!

Many thanks to the news staff at Channel 8 for their continued coverage of my campaign and for giving me the opportunity to reach their viewers.