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The Prosecution Doesn't Rest
Not for a pandemic at least.
This essay was originally published last week in my Discontents comrade Luke O’Neil’s newsletter, Welcome to Hell World, as part of a series called The Last Normal Day. If you don’t already subscribe to Luke’s newsletter, consider it!
It was March 12 and I was in night court. From 5 pm to 1 am, I was based in a windowless room off a basement in the Queens County Criminal Courthouse. I shuttled between that tiny homebase and the cells behind the attached courtroom, interviewing people who had been arrested, calling their families, and standing up with my clients in front of the judge so that they could (hopefully) go home.
It’s one of those days I will never forget. Most of it fades into the background, but certain vignettes surface over and over in my mind.
At some point that evening, a coworker of mine overheard an NYPD officer in the area near the cells coughing. He said something about thinking he had Covid, but his supervisors not allowing him sick leave for it. This was when there were still only a handful of confirmed cases in the city. I thought he was being dramatic, and so apparently did everyone else. At that point, I trusted the official lines, that masks didn’t do anything and that there were only a handful of Covid cases in the city.
I wasn’t the only one. It was brought to the court’s attention, but nothing came of it. I put my hand under the hand sanitizer station for the 50th time that night and moved on. I walked back and forth between the courtroom and the cells. I passed that NYPD officer dozens of times that night. I sanitized and sanitized, but I was not wearing a mask. Neither were any of my clients, who spent hours in that unventilated back room, sitting ducks as a potentially infected police officer hacked away.
At the dinner break, the judge invited us back into a conference room for pizza. And by “us” I mean the lawyers and the court staff. My clients did not get pizza. It was a nice gesture, but I look back and I shudder. There must have been a dozen or more people in that small conference room. It was still cold outside, so no windows were open. We grabbed food from communal boxes and chatted, just inches apart from each other. I left early — not because I was somehow smarter than everyone and thought to be worried about the virus, but because I am new and I’m awkward and I didn’t know anyone.
I kept moving back and forth between the windowless office and the suffocating jail cells. The fluorescent lights flickered. As a first-year attorney, night court is one of the hardest parts of the job. Even when people aren’t likely to stay in jail long, they’ve still been in a cell for something approaching 24 hours. The arrest itself was probably extremely traumatic, regardless of what they are accused of, and it often will trigger some other consequence: immigration issues, an order of protection that prevents them from going back to their house, a children’s services investigation that might threaten their relationship with their children. In night court, my job is to listen to people, and then to deliver some of the bad news about what might come next. It’s nothing next to being the one stuck in a cell, but it’s a lot of secondary traumatic stress all the same.
These days I’ve moved to working from home, but the court still processes people after arrest in person. The ever-moving treadmill of prosecution doesn’t stop, even for a pandemic. I communicate by Skype with clients in those same cells from the comfort of my living room. The usual stress is compounded by poor audio and video quality and an inability to forge any real connection with the person in the cell across from me. I can’t blame those who don’t trust their lawyers right now. We’re just one of a sea of floating heads that appear onscreen for a few minutes while they are actually, physically in jail. We are an abstraction in their nightmare reality.
That night, at 1 am, I stumbled out of the courthouse and waited for an Uber to take me home, where I hoped to get a few hours of fitful sleep before taking the subway back to my office. That was the last normal morning. I went to court that day, again maskless, moving back and forth between courtrooms, trying to find a judge who would take five minutes to vacate a bench warrant for a person who had shown up at the courthouse unplanned. In one courtroom and back out to another. All the judges were in a meeting, trying to figure out what to do about the coronavirus. Finally one agreed to see me and my client. When it was over, I walked out to an eerily empty courthouse.
I trudged back to the office where I heard the announcement that we were shutting down. The court was still undecided about what to do, but we would be working from home. Someone had been in contact with someone who tested positive. Thankfully, not a person who shared my particular little space, but it was terrifying all the same.
It was 5pm on March 13th, and life as we knew it was over. The Time of Corona was upon us.