On the day before Christmas Eve, they came before the judge in tattered overcoats, torn jeans and orange prison jump suits. Some were alone. One or two had a private lawyer. A few brought their kids, some of whom knelt on chairs to peek through the glass window at the back of the courtroom, waiting to see if their mom or dad would be going home with them for the holidays.
It was a particularly busy docket that reflected the hard times, crimes of passion and bad decisions that court workers often see this time of year in the felony first appearance calendar at the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility (the county jail).
So far, they are the accused: of drunken driving, theft, assault, fleeing police, child abuse, drug use, burglary, trespassing, fraud, domestic abuse, making terroristic threats. Most were already in jail and trying to persuade the judge that they were not dangerous, and that they should be given a bail they could afford so they could go home.
Each defendant had about one minute of Judge Jay Quam’s time to make their case through a public defender. On this day it was Chela Guzman-Wiegert, who often huddled with the defendant for a couple of minutes before making a focused plea to the judge. One minute that determined whether they would go home to await their trial, or stay in jail for several months, or more.
The first person in “the box” was a woman who came home to catch her spouse cheating on her with another woman. She stabbed him in the torso.
The box is a small room where defendants are brought from the jail into the court, one by one. There is a window in the box with an opening. If the defendants stick their heads through the opening and crane their necks, they can see their families — if anyone in their family shows up.
The woman who stabbed her husband had no previous record and “isn’t a flight risk,” said Guzman-Wiegert. Judge Quam looked at the details of the case in front of him. He could release her on a $50,000 bond, which she didn’t have, or release her without bail with supervision if she met all conditions. After a minute or so, he decided to let her go.
A woman facing extradition for a drug offense agreed to be sent back to Iowa. She looked to be perhaps in her 60s, but after her appearance, Quam noted that she was in her 40s. He shook his head sadly.
It was Quam’s turn to handle first appearances last week, a job that’s rotated among judges every few months. He said afterward it’s the most difficult — and important — thing he does as a judge.
“You get such little information and time, and your decision has such a major impact on people’s lives,” Quam said. “You look at whether a person is likely to return to court and whether there is a public safety issue if you let them out. I wish I had truth goggles.”
A man named Sullivan was brought in on assault charges. He allegedly punched a man, who fell unconscious onto Hennepin Avenue, fracturing bones in his face. The defendant pleaded to get out on bail to witness the birth of his child, due on Dec. 29. But he had failed to appear in court three times before, so Quam didn’t hesitate.
“Hold without bail,” he said.
Sullivan’s alleged accomplice in the assault was brought in. “How you doin’?” he said loudly to the judge.
Quam sent him back to jail, and the man started to argue.
“That’s it. That’s the end of the hearing,” Quam said sharply.
Another man appeared in the box. While in custody for loitering, he punched a deputy. He was homeless and suffered from mental problems. Another, charged with assault, said he was homeless with five children in a shelter. A third man was jailed for a failure to appear in court on a previous matter. When the judge refused to release him, a woman and three children got up with sad faces and trudged out.
“Life is hard for some people,” Quam said. “You sit there for one day, you realize your problems aren’t so big.”
Twenty-eight defendants, 28 grim stories, most related to drugs or alcohol abuse, on the day before Christmas Eve.
A man named Bryant was in the box, charged with violating an order for protection and fleeing the state with a child. He had a history of stalking and domestic violence. “Given your convictions and recent behavior, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” said Quam.
“Don’t I get to say nothing?” the man said as he was escorted back to jail.
A small woman, “Miss Brown” appeared in the box, her hands trembling and tears streaking her cheeks. She was charged with hitting a child in the face during a bout of drinking. Quam asked her a few questions and her voice quaked when she answered.
“I will release you considering a minimal criminal history,” said Quam. But she was prohibited from having any contact with her kids. Instead of going home, she would have a placement at a homeless shelter.
The woman began to cry, and a deputy handed her a tissue.
“Stay away from alcohol,” said Quam.
“I most definitely will,” she said. “Definitely. Most definitely.”
“Good luck, Miss Brown,” said Quam.
“Thank you sir, thank you so much,” she said.