It was a beautiful, warm, spring day in 1973. A few puffy white clouds dotted the otherwise blue sky over Tucson as my Dad guided our car to Old Tucson, the site of many a Hollywood-produced western. It was here that I had learned about facades. The false-fronted buildings which served to disguise the lack of substance behind most of the town’s establishments.
Forty-one years later, handcuffed to a fellow inmate, I traveled from the downtown Austin, Texas courthouse to the Del Valle jail facility in a Sheriff’s bus. I had just signed a plea agreement sentencing me to an eight year prison term. The otherwise overcast Autumn sky was broken up occasionally with beams of sunlight. After waiting sixteen months for my day in court, I finally saw the inside of a criminal courtroom. I made my way into that courtroom (the first I had ever seen personally) by a route known only to inmates and court officials. To juries and spectators, the labyrinths, holding cells, visitation rooms and lobbies which exist behind the veneer of the courtrooms are unknown.
As I struggled not to slip out of a bench seat unadorned with seat belts, I thought of my recent journey and transformation from naive and ignorant idealist, to shocked, dismayed, and convicted felon. I my wildest dreams I would never have imagined such an outcome. I tried to convince myself that I had done the best thing, even though I had pleaded for others in similar circumstances never to give into prosecutors’ bullying tactics.
I struggled against the centrifugal force which threatened to push me against my partner as the bus turned right onto Bill Price Road. A similar struggle against an inner voice was taking place at the same time.
“Hypocrite!” it accused. My body won its battle and my partner was saved from discomfort. My psyche wasn’t so fortunate. I had done that which I had counseled against. Twenty-plus felony counts – potentially multiple life terms – traded for a plea. Innocence traded for guilt. Not even my own paid attorney had any confidence in the system. My newfound acquaintances, some far less naive than I, tried to warn me, but I had, until this day, opted for idealism instead. As the bus pulled into the facility and the massive gate slid away, my head hung low and I thought of the stark contrast between the dark wood hues of the courtroom and the dirty cinder block and steel rooms behind its walls.
The similarity of the facades built for Ford or Huston’s cinema works and the burnt orange carpet and mahogany veneers of the courtroom hit me. Each facade hides a certain lack of substance, a fantasy that is important to preserve in the mind of the casual observer. Perhaps the fantasy that our cities, counties and federal court systems mete out justice, is just as important for its participants as it is for those who only indirectly participate in its activities.
Consider the fantasy created around the plea bargain, which represents over 90% of all federal convictions and a similarly high percentage of state convictions. Those convicted are directed to state under oath that the “sole reason” they are accepting a plea agreement is that they are guilty – not that they are avoiding the threat of much more dire sentences should they fight their cases through to trial. Whether or not the defendant is truly guilty, everyone in the courtroom is internally aware that a preposterous lie is being told. What would be the purpose of threatening someone with an extreme sentence and then drafting a much lower alternative if the lesser sentence was not an incentive itself? By forcing the defendant to deny the obvious (lie under oath), those in charge – judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, are condoning a fundamental corruption of the truth. If they are willing to look past lies like these on a daily basis, what else are they willing to tolerate?
I stepped off the bus and into the chilly, drab afternoon, dragging my partner toward the jail. Six months into his stay here, he was reset for a fifth time. I wondered how long he would have to wait for some semblance of justice. A day earlier I might have encouraged him to fight to the bitter end. Today I wouldn’t be so bold. Today I am unconvinced there is anything like justice; that justice is merely a facade. Tomorrow I may change my mind again. Tomorrow, maybe the mass-incarcerated who know what’s behind the facade will work together and draw back the curtains. Who else but us and our families really know?
Rick in Texas