My suite mate is retiring so I am moving my office around the corner. One of the items I packed was an invitation to a friend’s swearing in as a District Court judge. As it happens I was coming back from Rehoboth this weekend and as I approached the Bay Bridge I was again reminded of that day because I didn’t make the ceremony because I was in a jury trial in Caroline County and it was wild.
When I arrived at the Courthouse that morning there were a half dozen cases to be tried by a jury. I asked whose case would go that day and was told ALL OF THEM. Now this is a one judge court. It was explained to me that he does jury trials one day a month and he tries ALL of them. Last month the last jury trial ended at 4:00 AM- yes AM as in the next morning. Jurors were lined up down the stairs and all over the downstairs hallway. He called panels in and told them what time to come back- 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM, etc. As I tried to go down the stairs one juror said “Let’s just go in and find them guilty and go home.” I said it is not a defendant’s fault that this schedule exists and to be angry with the Judge not us.
Well shortly before 5- while the second, third, or fourth jury was out deliberating he did the Motion in my case where I got him to exclude money found in the car. There were 3 or 4 defendants, all of whom were in the car and charged with the drugs in the car. As we waiting for our turn the Assistant Public Defender wanted to talk to me and we went into what I remember was a library. He asked me what I thought I was going to do and I told him win the case. He went bat shit crazy and started screaming at me that “NOBODY WINS A DRUG CASE IN CAROLINE COUNTY.” I told him I had a defense and he could plead his client guilty but I wasn’t.
Well after 5:00 PM we pick a jury and in my opening statement I tell them it is not my fault, my client’s fault, or the prosecutor’s fault that it is whatever time it was and we are starting a trial. I said don’t hold it against any of us-including the prosecutor- and that it is his idea (I pointed to the judge) to start this trial now. Basically if you are pissed off be angry with the lunatic wearing the black robe.
Well we are a little into the case when the State attempts to introduce the money the Judge excluded. I object and he overrules it. I stand up and in front of the jury and we start going back and forth and I remind him we had a Hearing and he ruled the money doesn’t come in. We argued for a couple of minutes and he is exasperated and finally says, “Mr. Bernstein, you try my patience.” Now some of you may have watched Marx Brothers movies and know who Groucho Marx is. Insanely quick with the word and beyond funny- I have the book of his letters and it is hilarious what he wrote to people, especially those who had a problem with something he did or said. All I could think of was that Grouch would point to where I was standing at the trial table and tell him, “You must come over and try mine sometime.” I don’t how long I thought about it, but remember knowing that I would be a legend in Caroline County long after my death, but there was a small creek behind the courthouse and I would probably be killed by the bailiff, cut up, and my body parts sent meandering towards the Chesapeake Bay. I have VERY LITTLE self restraint. What is on my mind usually comes out of my mouth. To this day it must have been the cut up and body parts that overcame what I thought was a perfectly reasonable response to the Judge.
Well as my friend’s investiture was, by that time, in the the party phase, the jury came back NOT GUILTY as to my client. I find one of the jurors downstairs who was this little old man and asked him about the verdict. Of course I wanted him to tel me I was brilliant and beat the State to a pulp. Instead he looked at me, squinted, and said, “Tell your client, don’t come back.” I guess that was a compliment. I immediately told my client and his family they have no use for him in Caroline County and he better stay out of trouble. WELL a year or so later he got busted again, this time for a felony Burglary, couldn’t retain me, and went to prison.
So now I am coming back from winning a case that I could never win and I am beyond euphoric. As I approach the Bay Bridge I crank up Neil Young’s Rockin’ in The Free World. The Bridge is lit up and it is just a beautiful night. I open all the windows, put the sunroof back and blast it while I sing along. I could hear the stanchions on the bridge creaking from the thumping of Billy Talbot’s bass, and Neil and Poncho’s guitars. If I had been in a lesser made car, the tie rods would have snapped and the wheels would have bent over 90 degrees hurdling me down the Bridge or over the side into the Bay. I was so sorry I missed my friend’s big day, but at least for a while I kept my client rockin’ in the free world. So I don’t get sad when vacation ends and I am driving back over the Bay Bridge to get home. Just a big smile on my face.