Book One / 13
At the same time that the court was assigned to hear the State’s motion to force administration of psychotropic medication upon the defendant responsible for the New Year’s Eve murder, we were also assigned a separate criminal case for trial. We calendared both engagements simultaneously and wove their requirements into our available days.
Our new trial involved a defendant accused of indecent exposure. The State had filed the charge as a felony given the defendant’s prior convictions on the same offense. As the deputy prosecuting attorney had described the situation in his request for bail, the defendant appeared to be having “problems keeping his pants on in public.”
The conduct giving rise to this particular charge had occurred in a neighborhood tavern called – somewhat prophetically – the ‘Moon Sports Bar and Indian Grill.’ The defendant had allegedly pulled his pants and underwear down to knee-level and begun to dance and simulate sexual intercourse for the assembled patrons. Upon his arrest he’d merely explained to the officer that he pulls his pants down on occasion when his back hurts from the pressure of the clothing.
Eight months from the initial arrest the case was assigned to our court and the defendant and attorneys appeared for trial. Rather than commencing with trial, however, the parties announced that the defendant had decided to enter a plea of guilty that day, and hoped to proceed to sentencing shortly thereafter. The judge and I quickly reversed gears and prepared to take the man’s plea. Sentencing was set for 8:30 a.m. two days later.
The defendant was a forty-five year-old man with a criminal history of misdemeanor convictions extending back through twenty years. His only recent felony conviction was the other indecent exposure he’d committed a year and a half earlier. He would be pleading guilty as charged to this additional offense with the State’s agreement to recommend a term of confinement that would be satisfied at the time of sentencing due to the months he’d already been serving on electronic home detention. The only other conditions imposed would be to obtain a sexual deviancy evaluation and complete any treatment recommended.
The judge accepted the guilty plea. Although he was not bound to the terms of the agreement between the parties, he would find no reason in the circumstances of the offense not to honor them. The attorneys left the courtroom to prepare their pre-sentencing reports. Two days later they would return for sentencing.
In the defendant’s official statement to the court upon entering his plea, he’d shaped his confession to conform with the elements of the crime with which he’d been charged. He admitted that he had indeed made an open and obscene exposure by having his pants down in the presence of the victim, and he knew that his conduct would likely cause reasonable affront or alarm. He also admitted to engaging in this conduct having previously been convicted of the same offense.
Beyond these few words though, no description of developments in the man’s life would be available that day to flesh out an otherwise skeletal sketch of his adult years. Other than a two-page rap sheet of mostly driving-related misdemeanor offenses, we could know nothing more that day about a man who appeared somewhat suddenly to have developed the need for a public, symbolic exposure of a private, personal complaint. Nothing more revealing, so to speak, of the reasons why he might one day, at 43, decide that swinging his penis around in a tavern was the best way to express his emotional turbulence.
As is sometimes the case, however, his attorney’s presentence report filled in a few of the blanks when it arrived in chambers the next day. In her report she explained to the court that her client had successfully obtained funding for the sexual deviancy evaluation that could be ordered at sentencing. Additionally, following his arrest some months back, he had entered and already completed a three-month intensive out-patient program for alcohol and chemical dependency, and he remained engaged in continuing outpatient treatment.
Her client was married, the attorney stated further, but his wife had a serious illness and their combined financial circumstances had rendered them both indigent. He had taken every step necessary to prove his commitment to addressing his problems. He now hoped the court would honor his agreement with the prosecutor for the low-end of the standard sentencing range, and enter an order for his immediate release.
Attached to the attorney’s report was a copy of her client’s discharge summary and continued care plan from the outpatient program he’d been ordered to attend as a condition of his pre-trial custody status. The report confirmed that her client had completed that program, and his case manager’s evaluation provided brief observations of his successful participation.
In her evaluation, the case manager noted initially that the defendant continued to feel illness and pain following a gall bladder surgery he’d needed while an inmate in the jail. She conveyed to the court that the man was confronting his chemical dependency for the first time in his life, although he still hesitated in accepting responsibility for the criminal conduct he committed while under the influence of alcohol.
He was married, however, the manager added, and appeared to work hard on his relationship. In counseling he was never vulgar or discounting of how lucky he felt to be married. His commitment to abstinence from alcohol was strong, even though the expense of electronic monitoring and his difficulties balancing his work schedule with his treatment program created significant stress for both him and his wife. Nevertheless, he was always positive and participatory in the group process, she wrote, and he appeared warm and intelligent in group sessions.
In a thoughtful insight, the case manager observed that not only was the defendant able to handle teasing by others in his group — demonstrating self-esteem and psychological maturity — but he was also careful never to tease those with greater impairment. Additionally, he shared well-considered observations with others and, despite his barroom antics, he did not appear to need to be the center of attention.
In her conclusion the case manager noted simply that the defendant needed to focus on allowing others to get close to him, and to have greater belief in himself and his value to society.
The judge accepted the attorneys’ agreed recommendation when the parties again convened for sentencing, and the defendant was released fully from custody a few days later.
As the man walked out of court that day I thought about the case manager’s observation that he didn’t need to be the center of attention. Although his “obscene exposure” in the Moon Bar and Grill on a winter evening suggested the opposite, all of the remaining information provided about this man, along with his behavior in court, painted a different picture on balance. What emerged from the fuller story of his life was the image of an individual struggling with alcohol dependence, poverty, and frustrated mid-life expectations, but with the strength of character and commitment to personal relationships that might ameliorate his problems if he could remain engaged and avoid a deeper poverty.
I was unsure where to scale this man in the unwritten, ongoing list I maintained in my head of the defendants who appeared in our court. I often speculated privately on the chances of each individual’s success at staying out of the courts in the future given all the obstacles they faced once they entered. I leaned toward believing that this man would succeed, and hoped my belief was based on more than a mere desire.