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Spending a day observing Oldham County courts

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By Mike DiGuiro

In trying to fully understand how the various branches of Oldham County government function, I’ve gone to court; specifically Oldham County Circuit Court.

During my first visit, there were two lawyers, Judge Karen Conrad and me. The lawyers sat and discussed motions, subpoenas, “special masters” and various legal issues in voices both calm and passionate. The judge asked thoughtful questions and made some decisions over the course of about an hour. The whole process reminded me of a chess match.

At the end of the session, Judge Conrad suggested that I attend one of her Thursday criminal court days.

On April 3, I did just that. This is where legal sausage is made. It isn’t pretty, it’s at times incomprehensible, but it seems to work. This visit was more like rugby than chess.

The court is divided into two teams. Led on one side by Commonwealth’s Attorney Courtney Baxter and her several assistant attorneys. The opposing team is made up of the defendants, public defenders and paid defense lawyers. In support of the court are bailiffs, court clerks, parole officers, probation supervisors, witnesses and occasionally victims.

A steady stream of prisoners shackled hand and foot; in a variety of prison uniforms – I counted 7 different counties represented – accounted for about 25 percent of the cases.

Those appearing before the court in the morning session were a pretty ragged bunch. None seemed to own a shirt with a collar or without some graphic on the front. Some of them brought their wife and kids because nothing says family like the potential of having daddy cuffed and led out of the court.

The afternoon session differed from the morning. I noticed about a dozen well-dressed men sitting just inside the rail that separates the court from the gallery. Then I noticed that the defendants seemed more “put together” than the morning group. I concluded that many of these were folks that could afford their own lawyers and were probably more affluent.

The court process is that defendants were called to the bench before the judge. Defendants are flanked on their left by the members of Baxter’s prosecuting team, sometimes one, often two and on occasion more. On their right was their lawyer or public defender. Seated to the side were the probation and parole officers. The bailiffs hovered, either to the side, or in the case of prisoners, directly behind them. The court clerk sat in the eye of a hurricane of paper.

In the middle of this apparent chaos stands Judge Conrad - and I mean stands. I did not see her sit down the entire day as she worked through what seemed like a hundred cases.

It is clear that the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the judge all hoped to dispense justice in a manner that would possibly make this the last time they saw this particular defendant. I got the impression that the prosecutors and the judge try hard to allow nonviolent defendants to recover and become useful citizens. They also demonstrated that they had no patience for those who flaunted the court or lied about their circumstances. One young fellow lied about some meetings. A quick phone call by the judge squashed his story and he was soon led away in handcuffs. All were reminded that their freedom was contingent on meeting expectations. Defense lawyers were also reminded of their clients obligations. The Commonwealth’s Attorney reiterated more than once that she would violate a defendant’s probation if they didn’t live up to their commitments.

Judge Conrad generally was working with deals worked out between the prosecutors and the defense, who again I believe were trying to keep the bad guys off the street, but allow those with substance abuse and other smaller crimes a chance to overcome their records. They seem to understand that while many are going to fail at the chances they are given, some do succeed.

The prosecutors and the judge could send a lot of people to jail for a lot of years if they wanted. I believe they think it is both destructive to the individuals and financially destructive to the community to have to pay for the incarnation of people who are not dangerous.

Judge Conrad seems to try to position the charges so that if the individual succeeds at meeting the terms of his or her probation, that they have a chance to get their records cleaned up and get on with their lives. If restitution and fines are required, she is flexible as to payment schedule, however I imagine that once cut some slack on a low monthly payment, a defendant best keep up the payments.

Judge Conrad showed firmness where required, kindness where warranted and professionalism throughout. No person ever raised their voice. Every person was treated with respect and as best I could tell every person reciprocated.

The citizens of Oldham County, both the law abiding and the scofflaws, at least in this court, are in good hands.

The views in this column are those of the writer. Mike DiGiuro may be reached at oruigid@gmail.com