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Chapter 7

Stand over there, son.”

Deputy Sandstrom motioned for Robby to remain standing in the empty jury box, close to the door of the holding area and away from the podium. Robby looked up at the stern deputy, perhaps grateful for being called “son”.

Kristin signaled to an older woman in a wheelchair, sitting in the front role, “Are you here for this young man’s case?” Kristin asked the court deputy to assist the woman.

The woman nodded.

“Then you can come up here to the podium, please.”

Robby looked at his grandmother and began to cry. Mrs. Hartman sat stone-faced in her wheelchair, refusing to look at her grandson.

State Attorney Clark Stackhouse spoke first, his manner clipped, measured, authoritative,

“Good morning, Judge Dahlen. You are probably surprised to see me in juvenile court. It’s a rare occasion. But, this is a heinous, most serious crime. It requires my presence. I know that you’re required to conduct an advisory hearing for Mr. Hartman here.”

He nodded at a sniffling Robby.

“I’m putting everyone on notice. Due to the serious nature of these multiple felonies, the State will be filing charges against Mr. Hartman in adult court. If convicted by a jury, he’s looking at a long prison sentence. Possibly life.”

The emphasis wasn’t necessary, Kristin thought. The words, “adult court” were enough. This was a case of homemade bombs and attempted murder.

“Isn’t that my decision, Mr. Stackhouse? This is my case. I am the judge. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t consider transferring Mr. Hartman to adult court, even at age fourteen, but surely I have a say in the matter after some kind of hearing. I’d think some due process is still in order, even if the defendant is a minor.”

Phil McGee, chief state attorney for the juvenile division, chimed in softly and professionally. “Your honor, I know you’ve only been on the juvenile bench for a couple of months and this issue hasn’t come up. But in Florida the prosecutor can make the decision to file in adult court, if the kid is at least fourteen and the charges are serious. Both are true in this case.”

Phil was the perfect antidote to the Stackhouse style, Kristin thought. As a new judge in juvenile court, she relied upon him a lot.

“He’s right,” Jamie, the probation officer, said. “The Department of Juvenile Justice can still make a sentencing recommendation to the adult criminal judge, like maybe sentence him back to a juvenile program. But it’s largely out of our hands.”

“But he’s here today in your court, your honor,” Lee Ann pleaded for the defense. “You’re required to advise him of the charges and appoint our office to represent him, if his family hasn’t hired a private attorney.”

Mrs. Hartman glanced at the courtroom clock, looked behind her and whispered loudly to Lee Ann, “The private attorney should be here any moment.” Dr. Visconti walked over to stand next to Robby, a move that got Kristin’s attention as well as that of Deputy Sandstrom, who edged closer to the young man, who was now trembling and still looking at the floor.

“Your honor,” Dr. Visconti said, “nothing is certain about a transfer yet. Robby is in juvenile court and I strongly recommend that you order us to do a behavioral evaluation and …”
Bang! The courtroom door opened with such force that the door itself slammed into the back wall. A beefy well-dressed man in a double-breasted, pinstriped blue suit and red tie hurried up the aisle to the podium, dropping his slick leather briefcase next to him. All eyes were on him.

“Your honor,” he said in a booming voice that woke up the gallery, “I’m very sorry I’m late. I’m Sam Bernstein, here for the defense. My office is in Tampa and the traffic across the bay was worse than usual this morning.” He took a handkerchief from his pocket and patted his face. Kristin raised an eyebrow at the excuse. “Let’s skip to it Mr. Bernstein.”

“Whew. Well, I heard about this case on Bay Area 4 news this morning,” he glanced behind him at the news anchor. “I called the detention center to get Robby’s home phone number. The news report said he lived with his grandmother.” Mary exchanged looks with Phil McGee as Mr. Bernstein described the way he engaged his new client.

Bernstein looked at Mrs. Hartman in the wheelchair and she nodded, lips still firmly pressed together.

“I spoke with her on the phone this morning and told her I’d be interested in taking Robby’s case on a pro bono basis. I know she can’t afford my legal fees and I think Robby deserves the best representation possible.” His voice rose again. “Essentially, I’ll be working for free.”

Raphael snickered, whispering just loud enough to be heard by Mary. “Yeah, free except for all the PR and TV coverage.”

Sam pointed to Mary and said, “So I’d ask the court to discharge the public defender, if she’s already been appointed, and accept my Notice of Appearance, which is somewhere...”

He reached to open his briefcase.

State Attorney Clark Stackhouse bounced on the balls of his feet, hands twitching at his side. Lee Ann glared at Bernstein, tapping her chest with her fountain pen. Before either could speak, Kristin took command.

“Just a minute, Mr. Bernstein. It’s one thing to be late, but it is worse to burst into my courtroom, interrupt a hearing and display ignorance of our procedures as well as our personnel.”

She pointed to Robby and Mary.

“Dr. Visconti is not the public defender but a child psychologist who assists the court in evaluating the situation. She’s standing next to Robby Hartman, who apparently is your client, so I suggest you introduce yourself to both of them.

“Lee Ann Morris is the public defender on duty today and if she agrees I will discharge that office from further service to Robby.”

Lee Ann sat down, looking relieved.

“I’m sure you know State Attorney Stackhouse. Just before you arrived he announced that the State will be filing the charges against Robby in adult court.”

Kristin was well aware of Sam Bernstein’s reputation as a no-holds-barred, aggressive defense attorney. “I take it you’re up to that kind of battle.”

Bernstein’s smile said everything. Clark Stackhouse shook his head in disbelief. Raphael Gonzalez and Phil McGee sat down.

“Now, let’s finish this hearing. Robby Hartman,” Kristin said, her official tone causing the boy to look up at her. “You are charged with six felonies, all of them occurring this morning at your middle school. The affidavit accuses you of attempted arson, bringing deadly weapons onto school property, igniting an explosive device on school property, aggravated assault on school resource Officer Thomas Bowman, aggravated battery on Officer Bowman and attempted murder of Officer Bowman.

“Mr. Bernstein, do you waive a detailed reading of the complaint? I know you’re going to be meeting with Robby shortly.”

“Yes, your honor. In fact, I intend to enter not guilty pleas on Robby’s behalf. You will find that Robby is a boy who has never been in trouble. He is a decorated Boy Scout who provides necessary help to his grandmother. He was bullied in school and acted out in retaliation. I ask that he be released on electronic monitoring, if necessary, to his grandmother’s care.”

“Whoa there,” exclaimed Stackhouse as his two assistants and Jamie jumped to their feet. Dr. Visconti waved her hand and Kristin nodded for her to speak next.

“I’m looking forward to working with someone of Mr. Bernstein’s experience and reputation in Robby’s case. Just before he came in, I was about to request the court to order a behavioral evaluation. I think that in this case, I’ll just explain it to Mr. Bernstein after court,” she added, seeing the lawyer’s puzzled look.

“Also, Judge, I think everyone in court today would recommend that Robby be held the twenty-one days in detention as allowed by law. It will give me time to begin my evaluation, his grandmother will know he’s safe, the school can return to normal, we can get a report on Officer Bowman’s condition—I just heard he’s been moved out of intensive care—and we can all meet again to discuss how to proceed. Robby can get counseling and, of course, attend school in detention.

“Perhaps the State will reconsider a direct file,” Mary concluded, looking right at Stackhouse, who vigorously shook his head. No.

“So ordered,” Kristin said, tapping her gavel lightly for emphasis. “I’m taking a ten-minute recess and then we’ll move to our shelter and dependency hearings. We’re running quite late. Let’s be efficient and move the cases along if possible.”


Mary walked out of the courtroom next to Raphael.

“Gonna tussle with the big boys, Mary?”

“Don’t be insulting, Raphael. I’m here to do a job, that’s all.”

“You need to know that we’re not going to be allies here,” he answered. “I’ve helped you on those misdemeanors, given you things, but this is a big deal. Clark Stackhouse is not a compromiser, even if he does shove the work down to Phil McGee until the actual jury trial. He’ll take over then. Actually, I think Sam Bernstein will plead the kid out once he gets the publicity he wants.”

Mary looked him in the eye, ready with a sharp answer. She took a breath, thought better, and lowered her voice. “You don’t ‘give me things’ Raphael. We work together and collaborate for the best interests of the child and public safety.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, but moved quickly away. Raphael was determined to get justice for the officer and any deviation from that path would be considered a failure, she thought. That was his mission. A man on a mission. A macho man on a mission. She had plenty of those in her family so she understood that psyche.

Mary told herself she could separate her feelings for work and play, if the opportunity arose. She and Raphael were professionals. They could build a wall around these difficult cases outside of court. Outside, where she might enjoy his company.

Mary’s distraction put her right in front of a contingent of police officers leaving court. They’d been there to stand in for Officer Bowman. While they didn’t say anything to her, Mary could feel their hostility. In a way she didn’t blame them. She respected what they did, the dangers they faced and she too prayed for Officer Bowman’s recovery.

Mary felt her jacket tugged from behind and she turned around.

“Need an escort?” Jamie asked, grinning.

“Want to hide out in my office for a while?” Lee Ann sounded more serious. The two of them tried to link arms with her but she brushed them away.

“No, I’m going to be a big girl today,” she quipped, breaking through the line of officers. One of them stepped in front of her, lightly touching her sleeve.

“Say, Mary, the other officers don’t want this kid to walk. Get it?” It was Detective Joseph Russo, with a lopsided but earnest grin. He seemed to always speak out of one side of his mouth or the other.

“It’s only advisories, Joseph. Let’s see how it pans out. Plus, remember, I’m not Robby’s advocate, nor am I his adversary.” She didn’t remove his hand from her sleeve. She had dated him occasionally, found him wildly attractive in a dangerous sort of way and enjoyed the rush he gave her. On another day she might ponder his charms.

He began to finger her sleeve, moving his hand up toward her chin.

“Pick your sides carefully, Mary,” he said with a mixture of familiarity and warning.

She pulled his hand away. “Didn’t you hear me, Detective Russo? I’m still in neutral.” She walked towards her office without a backwards look.


Seven hours later, after typing reports, taking phone calls from parents, teachers and counselors, and munching on a stale tuna sandwich on wheat bread with wilted lettuce that she had left overnight in the office refrigerator, Mary felt the stress of the day in the knots forming in her shoulders. She walked slowly over to judicial reception, processing what to say to the judge. She knocked lightly on the door to Judge Dahlen’s private chambers.

“It’s four o’clock, Judge. Is this still a good time to talk?”

Kristin looked up from a stack of court orders which she had been signing at a round table in front of her couch. She stretched and yawned. She signaled for Mary to take a seat on the couch.

As Mary walked over, her eyes took in a room filled with colorful prints and watercolors, carved wooden figures and what sounded like music from a harp. When she had more time she’d ask the judge for a tour.

“Dr. Visconti…Mary. I guess I can call you that here. After this morning, I’m beginning to appreciate your help in court. Not just the behavioral evaluations…those are great…but your overall demeanor. You seem to know everyone there and I can tell you really like kids.”

“I do,” Mary said, smiling. “And, Judge, considering…

“Call me Kristin, Mary. And by the way, I was watching the courtroom this morning on our close circuit,” she said, pointing to the TV on her credenza, “and I saw all of you joking and laughing at something before I came in. What was so funny?”

Mary blushed. “Jamie was showing Lee Ann and Raphael pictures of a line dancing contest she’d entered. Apparently they go out together some weekends. I told them if they taught me to line dance I’d make them all my special pasta dish.”

Kristin didn’t ask to be included.

“Kristin, considering the short time you’ve been in juvenile, I think you’re doing an amazing job. You seem to like it. Not all judges do. Some can’t wait to get re-assigned. Look how you handled Mikayla Wright’s case. A fourteen year-old with a butcher knife? It’s not an easy call to release her.”

“No, and I just hope she doesn’t stab her mother to death tonight. I wouldn’t have released her, but you brought out the back story. I can’t imagine it is easy re-uniting a mother who has had a drug problem with a girl in foster care.”

“Counseling will help. I saw a real mother-daughter bond between them, between the tears. You know, tears are a good thing in juvenile court, Kristin. They show that there are feelings, a sense of vulnerability. It’s when they put up an emotional wall that I become really worried.”

“Emotional vulnerability,” Kristin laughed, more harshly than Mary expected. “Is that what that kid Robby showed this morning? Mary, in Robby’s case I think your natural optimism is wasted. Legally, he’s innocent until proven guilty. But, believe me, he’s headed for prison. He’s wrecked his life and of course I hope Officer Bowman makes a complete recovery. I feel sorry for Robby’s grandmother.”

“Let’s see what the evaluation shows. Plus, Sam Bernstein’s a great lawyer, albeit a pain in the butt.”

“Evaluations, the back story, the abuse and neglect. That’s what bothers me about juvenile court,” Kristin said. “Upstairs in adult court we were always moving cases forward. A crime is committed, an investigation, arrest, plea or jury trial and verdict. The main thing I did was to decide a sentence, and we had a bunch of guidelines for that. It moved along, forward.

“Down here in juvenile we’re always looking backwards. Why was the kid out at two a.m. selling cocaine? Why shoplift? Smoke pot? Skip school? And when we look back, we often find abuse, abandonment or neglect. Kids can’t raise themselves, that’s for sure, but does that mean they’re not guilty of their crimes?”

Kristin took a deep breath. She gave voice to the private thoughts that plagued her over the weekend. “There’s just so much grief—grief for the children, the parents, the victims of their crimes. It seems endless and, frankly, unsolvable. Many of the same families. Generational grief.”

“Do you have children, Kristin?”

Kristin hesitated, then turned a large framed picture towards Mary. A strikingly handsome blonde boy in a blue sweater smiled at her. “That’s Anders. He’s only ten but tall for his age. About as tall as Robby. He’s a great kid. Good grades and friends, loves sports and can’t decide which he likes better, snow skiing or water skiing.”

“Is he your only child?”

“Ah…yes. How about you, Mary? Any children?”

“No, unless you count the thousand behavioral evaluation kids. Judge–I mean Kristin–I’m not used to saying your name–take a look at your handsome son Anders and think what you see in his eyes.

Kristin looked at Anders.

“It’s not about grief, Kristin. It’s about hope”

“Hope?”

“Juvenile court is all about hope.”

Mary got up and gestured with both hands, painting an emotional picture. She might not get another chance like this one.
“Hope when a street-smart kid stops selling drugs and thinks about playing football.

“Hope when a young girl who felt hurt, abandoned and betrayed stops self-medicating with the drugs she steals from her mother and finally grabs hold of her future.

“Hope when an almost Eagle Scout thinks maybe he will be able to reach some of his dreams, once he pays for his serious charges.”

Kristin nodded slowly. “Hope?”

“We’re all about hope, Kristin. Just like the hope you see in your son.”

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