Pubdate: Fri, 22 Sep 2000
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Houston Chronicle
Contact:  Viewpoints Editor, P.O. Box 4260 Houston, Texas 77210-4260
Fax: (713) 220-3575
Author: Thom Marshall
Note: Our newshawk writes: Thought this was one of Thom's most powerful 
columns so far. A good way to get the Journey for Justice started, here in 
Harris County. So far so good insofar as the J4J is concerned. It's raining 
lightly at the moment, but we're hoping it will let up in time for the 
press conference at 12:30 PM.


Waiting for the jury to return a verdict, I started wondering how many
thousands of bucks we'd spent in that courtroom that day, and trying
to figure out just what we are getting for the money.

The jurors, who were each paid six bucks plus lunch, were not
deliberating about guilt or innocence. They didn't even know what
crime the woman was accused of committing. Their only duty this day
was to determine whether she was, or eventually would be, mentally
competent to stand trial.

The jurors had studied evidence and listened to arguments presented by
the assistant district attorney and the court-appointed defense
attorney. The court-appointed lawyer said $1,100 is the most pay the
judge will approve for this case, which included seven pre-trial
settings before the competency hearing.

I called the Harris County Auditor's office Thursday morning to find
out the average pay for an assistant DA, and for others who work in
the courtroom. Assistant DA pay ranges from $3,925 to $8,824 per month.

Defense Gets A Break

The jurors also heard from a couple of expert witnesses. One is a
psychologist who works for the Mental Health and Mental Retardation
Authority at Harris County Jail. Someone at MHMR said its
psychologists are paid from $1,177 to $1,300 every two weeks, but I
wouldn't be surprised if that jail job pays more than that.

This psychologist declared the woman competent to stand trial. Said
that in making his evaluation, he spent about 45 minutes with her and
he reviewed the police report of her alleged offense along with a
couple of medical assessment forms filled out by the jail nursing
staff. He said he also had someone observe the woman when she went to
the restroom.

The other expert witness also is a psychologist. He evaluated the
woman for the defense and, in response to prosecutor questions, said
it was his understanding his pay would be $750 (subject to approval by
the judge). He said his evaluation included spending an hour and a
half to two hours talking to the woman and testing her, as well as
examining extensive medical records about the brain injuries she
suffered in a car crash in 1986. His conclusion was that the woman was
not competent to stand trial.

Something else the jury heard, along with everyone else in the
courtroom, was the constant squeak of a chair. Not a sharp and
unpleasant squeak, such as that made by an unoiled metal spring, but a
softer squeak resulting from the surfaces of a chair's leather-like
covering contantly rubbing together.

The woman rocked back and forth in her chair throughout the
proceedings. The psychologist for the defense testified that this
rocking trait is something "exhibited since birth" and may be
hereditary. He said it increases under stress. Whether or not this
rocking had any direct bearing upon the question of competency, the
squeak-squeak-squeak of that chair seemed to work in favor of the defense.

All For Half Of A $10 Deal

It was especially noticeable in quieter times, such as when the
attorneys would approach the bench for a whispered exchange with the
judge, who earns in the neighborhood of $9,250 a month.

Others who were being paid for their work in the courtroom include the
court reporter, at $4,335 per month; the court clerk, at $1,597 to
$2,748 per month; and the bailiffs, at $2,342 to $3,714 per month. An
MHMR case worker, who earns between $848 and $936 every two weeks,
accompanied the woman to each of her many court appearances.

My watch said 4:08 p.m. when the judge read his charge to the jurors.
They heard brief closing remarks from the prosecutor and the defense,
then retired to reach their decision. It was 5:23 p.m. when they
returned with it: mentally incompetent. She won't stand trial.

I asked the woman's lawyer what crime she is charged with. Did she
kill or injure or threaten to hurt someone? Did she rob, burgle,
cheat, forge checks or steal?

No. She was accused of going in with a man to buy $10 worth of crack
cocaine. The man turned out to be an undercover cop who arrested her.

What a production over half of a $10 crack buy. Seven pre-trial trips
to court. So much time invested by so many officials of our criminal
justice system. So much money spent prosecuting a person who so
obviously needs help.

The drug war turns courtroom drama into theater of the
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