“All human life has its seasons, and no one’s personal chaos can be permanent: winter, after all does not last forever does it? There is summer, too, and spring, and though sometimes when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, that summer, but they do, and always."
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Courthouse Survival Advice
These notes were gleaned from experience, and were written by Bonnie and John.
Let these notes be published in memory of Mae, who was murdered in 1995. Mom was an 80-years-young woman, who was raped to death in her own home. The murder was witnessed by her elderly sister, who was visiting at the time.
"I originally wrote this for the friend of a friend, who had a nasty crime in her family, too. We were all asked to meditate and pray for peace and strength for her family during the trial, and I thought I could offer something a little more concrete."
Clothing - first of all, if you are clean and look halfway neat, you look better than most of the people at the courthouse. If you want to be dealing with the press, dress accordingly. They will put slobs on TV, but they don't like to. Like it or not, there is often a lot of PR necessary in getting justice for your loved one. The lawyers will be wearing suits. The criminal may too. You don't have to go so far as high heels or coat and tie, but stay away from the cutoffs and T-shirts.
Line up at least 5 (Monday through Friday) "easy-to-care-for and easy-to-live-in" outfits. I'd suggest an emphasis on comfortable clothing that you can sit in for hours, if necessary, without a lot of fussing, tucking, pinching and riding up. Something that doesn't wrinkle is better, in the long run. I hate to admit it, but polyester does have some value here. Same for shoes - get good comfortable walking shoes - you'll be on your feet a lot. Line up outfits that are permanent press, that can be easily laundered at home, in your odd moments. When the trial(s) take off, you'll have no time or energy for the cleaners or delicate hand laundry and pressing.
Find a non-fussy hairdo, and non-fussy makeup, etc. Pare down as much primping as you can in the morning, since you'll be needing more sleep than you are used to needing. Fair warning - even good quality eye makeup tends to run when you cry -and there's nothing like courthouse proceedings to reduce you to tears.
Start taking VERY GOOD care of yourself, if you aren't already. Work your schedule to allow you to get more sleep, take your vitamins, and get some calm exercise. Avoid caffeine, take it easy on junk food. You may find you will be more prone to colds, stomach upsets, etc. Stress will do you in, if you let it.
Anytime there is a break in court proceedings that is going to last more than a few minutes, try to get out of the courthouse, or even just walk around the hallways to clear your head. The downtown San Diego courthouse is a 50's institutional mausoleum, and is a pretty depressing place. Some of the outlying facilities are better, I'm told.
Put together what I called my "courthouse bag" and carry it every day. This is a small carrying bag, preferably made of cloth, since paper and some plastic bags rustle and make noise. (More about noise later.) In this courthouse bag, put several small packages of tissues, cough drops, antacids, and soft (noncrunchy) snacks in non-rustling wrappers, extra change for the vending machines, etc. Something I discovered was that Altoid brand mints will keep you alert, when more caffeine is the last thing you need.
Keep a magazine, and/or a book, and/or a crossword book and a couple of pencils and pens in the bag. Keep a small notebook handy, for keeping notes, jotting names and phone numbers, etc. Carry your lunch, if you are of a mind, but remember that paper wrappings rustle, and cans and bottles clank on the floor, etc.
Be VERY AWARE of the noise potential of anything you wear or carry. Watch out for squeaky shoes, charm bracelets, rustling wrappings, etc.
What you SHOULDN'T bring into a courtroom are newspapers (they rustle and crackle) knitting or crocheting (visual distraction), pagers, portable phones, or laptop computers (they bleep and blap). These last you can carry if you turn off the noise functions, but fertheloveamike, don't forget. One stray bleep and Hizzoner will throw you out of the courtroom. Really.
Don't bring children under about 12 into the courtroom - this is no place for a fussy or fidgety child. And you both will be ordered to leave at the first fuss or fidget, even relatives. Really.
And FOR SURE no conversations or whispering while anything "official" is going on (which usually means whenever the judge is around). Stay in the courtroom, quiet and seated like part of the scenery, for the full duration of each session, with no coming and going. Usually, there will be a break of at least a few minutes every ninety minutes or so. Make sure to visit the restroom during these breaks.
Something to remember is that the courtroom itself belongs to the judge - lock, stock and banana peel. Anything that happens in there is subject to the judge's approval and whim, whether or not it is any of Hizzoner's business. These judges don't have to be reasonable, or even civilized. The best you can hope for is a benevolent autocrat. Whatever you do, don't make noise.
The trial(s) will eventually happen, but they will be postponed as many times as possible. This is all considered, by law fiends, fair game. So, don't prepay your parking until the trial actually starts, don't make heavy appointments between hearings, plan to see your dentist on Saturday, etc.
The trial schedules will be changed more often than your underwear. Most of the delays will be due to the machinations of the defense lawyers. They will do anything they can to stall, in the hopes that witnesses will forget, have a stroke, or die of old age. They know perfectly well how guilty their client is, so their job is to blow as much smoke as possible. Also, there will be many conferences, hearings, bindings over, etc. - mostly scheduled on the spur of the moment with no concern for your calendar. Know this ahead of time, and cope the best you can.
Conversely, if the future dates of a trial interfere with a vacation or something important in your life that is already scheduled, there is good chance that the actual date will change three times before then, and you can go ahead and follow your plans. It just won't look like it, at first.
Be warned ahead of time that the defense lawyers will tell any lie they can think of about you, your family, your habits, your beloved belated one, etc. Practice your poker face, since a noticeable reaction on your part MAY be considered grounds for a retrial, right then and there. (The jury MAY see as much as a grimace.) You aren't allowed to influence a jury in ANY way that the defense attorneys can see, and believe me, the defense will be watching you and your family like vultures.
There's an old saying in legal circles - if you can't attack the case, attack the witnesses. That means that, for the duration of the trial, you and your family will have to live like, pardon me, Sunday school teachers. Even a traffic ticket can be cause for alarm. If anything else untowards happens during the trial(s), talk to your D.A. about it. If you have a criminal record or controversial reputation yourself, or anyone in the family, let the DA know. Forewarned is forearmed.
In San Diego, the courthouse is downtown, where food is expensive, and parking is prohibitive. Unless you are independently wealthy, a sneaky way around that is to park someplace uptown and take a bus the rest of the way. Once you finally get into a trial and will be coming regularly, some of the parking lots have weekly or monthly rates that are much cheaper than the daily rate. Another dodge, if several people are going to be there, is to carpool and share parking expenses. Don't leave anything valuable visible in your car in the uptown areas. Carrying your lunch is smart, if you avoid the noise problem. There are a lot of eateries downtown, and parking lots, but carry enough money.
Eating outside of court time may also prove to be a trial. I found it helpful to have some homemade familiar "comfort food" in the freezer, pantry, etc. The court sessions will occasionally recess early in theafternoon. Be ready ahead of these recesses with shopping lists and a cache of spare money, so when you do get these times, you can efficiently shop for and cook up and freeze a triple batch of some old favorite.
Keep fast, easy breakfasts and suppers handy at home, whether or not you make your own. If the trials go on for any length of time, you'll tire of fast food, and probably have no time or energy for restaurants. Just keep in mind that you don't have to live like this forever.
Keep stocked up on aspirin, antacids, etc. at home. Try to arrange your household so that you have plenty of basic non-food stuff - t.p., toothpaste, shampoo, tampons, laundry detergent, that sort of thing - stock up WAY ahead on it, to cut down on emergency shopping runs.
You may find the courthouse routine very trying and very tiring. This is considered normal. Hence the extra sleep, the vitamins, etc. If you are like most families-of-crime-victims, you'll probably need a lot more private time than you formerly did, and during the trial(s) you'll have no extra time at all. I found long walks in the evening necessary, with or without the dog.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of faith, in coping with a major crime.
Your friends will be very concerned about you. Most of them will want to do something to help, but won't know what to offer. A good thing to do is to pick one of them, and give this friend your list of other people to keep posted. Keep this one friend updated on any progress or changes. Let that friend call and inform your list of people on a pre-arranged schedule. This is better than your own phone ringing off the wall. Or, one couple I know re-recorded their outgoing phone message every evening when they got home, to reflect the progress of the trial. That way, people could keep up with the news and not bother the family. And if they need to talk to you, they can leave a message themselves, and you can return the call when you can.
If you don't have one now, get a phone-answering machine. It takes the pressure off, and makes it possible to screen your calls. There is NO DEPTH to which a defense attorney will not stoop to get his client off. Also, the media can be a very disruptive factor in your life. Protect yourself.
If you are lucky, you have friends that will take over some of your errands, to free up your time. Other people can pick up kids at school, or manage a short shopping list, two loads of laundry, etc. And any time or energy they can save you, you can use elsewhere.
You will probably stay very busy, whether or not you are "doing" anything. You may need lots of what the homicide support groups call "down time". Even those of us who never did before, have discovered television or videotapes. It is a way of keeping the mind distracted from the crime, and resting. You may or may not find books, intelligent conversation, etc., too complicated after a day at the courthouse. What I learned to do was search the backwoods of the television cable system, daily, and I started programming a videotape machine to tape the things I was interested in, but never took the time to watch. Suddenly, when I needed the mind muffler, all that stuff was there, waiting for me.
The good news is that your mind and concentration abilities will eventually, slowly, come back. Until then, anthologies, magazines, puzzle books, etc., will do wonders. And, of course, the television mindrot.
You may want to clip the newspaper clippings, for out of town friends and family. You may want to get several people videotaping various channels of news coverage, for the same folks.
If you are sane enough, talk to the reporters, on or off camera. They can be royal pests, but very helpful if you need public outrage in your corner. Like any other class of people, some of them are rotten, but some are also pretty decent people. BE SURE to check with your D.A. about what you should and shouldn't say to the press. Again, the defense can say or do anything they want to, but one little slip on the part of the prosecution.
If you aren't sane enough, keep some 'post-it' notes in your courthouse bag. A post-it note stuck to the lens of an intrusive camera will temporarily disable it, and give you a few seconds to get away. But DON'T TOUCH THE REPORTERS, no matter how obnoxious they are. That's assault, and can get you into serious grief.
I REALLY recommend that you make friends with your District Attorney. Some are better than others, and you may or may not actively like the one that gets assigned to your case. But make sure that they understand that you are ready and willing to do anything, EVERYTHING in your power to help with the case. And of course, having offered that, be sure to do it. And again, don't make important after-court or between court sessions appointments. Keep yourself free to run errands, do research, whatever it takes. If you think of something that may be of help during the trial, jot it in your little notebook, and talk it over with your D.A. later.
Be as decent and friendly as you can to the bailiff, court clerk, etc. They can be helpful, but aren't required to be. You aren't allowed ANY contact with the accused, the judge, or any member of the jury. Don't mess with the defense attorneys - it is not forbidden, but they are mostly slime, anyway.
In San Diego, the defense attorney(s) are connected with, I forget the name of the outfit, but it is the investigative office connected with criminal defense attorneys. It has a county designation. These guys look official, but they are lower than whale poop, and much more troublesome. They'll want to investigate the crime scene - see the inside of the house, the attic, the garage, the water heater shed, and. And maybe they'll want to talk to your friends, neighbors, delivery people, gardeners, etc. They will want to do it as many times as they can get away with, and they'll start it all over again if the defense attorney(s) change. It is mostly a bill padding and trial delaying ploy. You are NOT REQUIRED to cooperate with them, in San Diego. But they don't ask permission to invade, and they don't make appointments, they just flash their badges and march in. So, notify your baby-sitter, your gardener, your tenants, your neighbors, etc. and/or warn the landlord. Ask them to watch the crime scene, if it belongs to you. If you are in doubt, check with your D.A. Also, make sure that the D.A. is aware of what they are up to and what they are asking.
One of the best, handiest bits of advice I was given was this: Get in the habit of staying sitting inside the courtroom during the shorter recesses, at least till everyone else leaves. Fiddle with your cough drops or something, so they think you aren't listening. You can learn a lot of insider information just in the bantering that goes back and forth between lawyers, D.A.s, judge, bailiffs, etc. Anything you can learn, any is understanding you can correct, is knowledge that your D.A. may be able to use.
Also, don't be surprised when you see the D.A.s and the defense attorneys acting like old friends when the heat is off and the jury is gone. They all seem to know each other. The fact that your D.A. is civil to (or even friendly with) the defense attorneys doesn't mean he/she isn't in your corner.
You may want to look up a support group for people who've had this kind of crime in the family. The group probably has people who are through with their court mess, as well as people with shiny new crimes. You can learn a lot from these courthouse veterans, too. I took several ideas from my support group, to a willing-to-listen D.A., and she used some of it. A support group is also good since it just plain helps to talk with people who really understand. These groups can be hard to find. Check with the victim-witness people, who work at the courthouse. Another possible source is the Internet.
Another thing the D.A. told me was that, the more people in the courtroom gallery, on the victim side, the better it will look to a jury. So, line up as many friends and family as you can for the trial(s). Not everybody has to be there every day, but have some, every day. Try to make sure that a "core group" is there most of the time - and that they "look" sympathetic.
In the courtroom, they will keep you and your family as far away from the culprit and his family as space allows. The bailiff will watch you and yours like a hawk, until he or she is confident that you won't make trouble.
Brace yourself for the criminal justice system. It is a royal misnomer. The criminal will get all the courtesy, will get all the breaks, and will get every advantage that the law offers. The defense attorneys can say anything they want without fear of contradiction, AND THEY WILL! On the other hand, the D.A. has to be very careful, because any misstep or inaccuracy will cause a mistrial or dismissal. You will see dreadful, unfair and ludicrously unjust things go by - and you need to keep a straight face. Just please be forewarned.
In the state of California, the victim's family will be questioned about their participation and/or foreknowledge of the crime. Brace yourselves.
You may be asked to leave the courtroom occasionally at first - I'm not sure how that works. This is a good time to have PREVIOUSLY made the D.A.completely understand of your feelings and intent. If you plan to attend every hearing, every conference, every binding over, every trial, every everything - good. And if the D.A. understands this clearly, said D.A. can argue to get you in places where you may not be entirely welcome. But make sure your D.A. knows your wishes. Clearly. Ahead of time.
Nothing moves very fast at the courthouse. Fair warning. My Mother's murder was witnessed by two responsible adults, there was overwhelming physical evidence, and the culprit was caught leaving the scene of the crime by two police officers. This was not a mystery crime in any sense of the word. And it took three full trials to put him away. It took innumerable court conferences, hearings, bindings over, etc. and more than two years to see some justice. I've heard about cases that took ten years. So the word here is, brace yourself for what may be a very long haul.