Day in court
The accused rapist sat in the jury box beneath the lovely, sky-blue, gold-leafed ceiling in the Dukes County Courthouse last Thursday. He was still and expressionless, staring across the well of the court, holding a plastic cup of water in his manacled hands. Because he didn't move, he didn't jangle. His appearance in court was perfunctory, just to continue the case and his imprisonment until a Superior Court Grand Jury meets next week to consider an indictment. Judge Gregory Williams disposed of the matter in minutes, but the defendant sat in the courtroom for a long while, in his chains, until a deputy sheriff came to return him to the jail. Another defendant, whose matter was brought to a conclusion by the judge, shuffled over to the wall and leaned against it while an officer undid the leg irons, so he could resume his life, without hobbles. It was a bright, warm, sunny Thursday to begin again.
The Dukes County courtroom, unlike the courthouse, is spacious, which is not the case in many more modern courtrooms. The difference is analogous to that between the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven, a derivative of theatres of years past which began life hosting live productions, or wanted to seem as though they had, and the new, twin theatres in Edgartown, which have a confining, less exalted, more efficient, tunnel-like ambiance. Being at the Capawock was intended to be an event; at the modern mega-, or rather, bi-plex, it's a movie.
The courtroom has barely changed since the 1970s, when, as a beginning reporter, I spent every Friday morning there covering court. The stubble of chewing gum, hardened, even brittle with age, remains beneath the uncomfortable bench seats. But the room has been spruced up, and that wonderful, sky-high ceiling is the best feature. That, and the enormous windows, which do their best to sub for air-conditioning, which the courthouse lacks. The windows open, and the court officers invited the small group of lawyers, defendants, witnesses, and onlookers to throw up the sashes and cool things off. Joe Sollitto, the clerk of the Superior Court, a lawyer himself and an informal historian of the county bar and the court's activities, recalled the time a defendant, waiting as the rapist was, but able to get around because he was just in cuffs, not leg irons and cuffs chained around the waist as this modern life now requires, leapt out of one of the big windows and fell stunned to the ground two floors below. Joe was on his phone in his office near the courtroom and saw the hopeless, deranged miscreant float by. He told his caller, I'll have to call you back.
Joe also recalled the time, before the state jury system was organized as efficiently as it is now, when folks were able to evade jury duty for one reason or another, and 12 men (or women) good and true could be hard to come by. He remembered the day the judge, as he was empowered to do, ordered then sheriff Huck Look out onto the "highways and byways" of the county to dragoon a jury pool, which of course the sheriff, who could be very persuasive, did. No sooner had the impressed jurors assembled in the courthouse than Joe's phone was ringing. It was Bob Carroll, the longtime Edgartown selectman and proprietor of the Kelley House in Edgartown, complaining a blue (very blue) streak that Joe had collected both of his hotel dining room's chefs. Bob thought two of two was unfair, and Joe agreed, so one was released to kitchen duty.
In the old days, I sat with the late Harvey Ewing of Edgartown, my mentor and colleague. He reported for the Cape Cod and New Bedford dailies. Our perches were two chairs right behind the prosecution table. That way, we could read the notes the assistant DAs had made for their opening statements, and we could chat with them surreptitiously while court proceeded. That is, we could unless the reigning Judge Samuel Flaksman, a tiny, fierce, irrepressible, but self-conscious jurist caught us. Judge Flaksman, an Eastville summer resident, had boxed in a light division when he was at Harvard, and he dressed us down, sparing no punches. He did the same to court officers, unprepared lawyers, sullen defendants, and clumsy prosecutors, but when he scolded those folks, he watched carefully to see that Harvey and I were taking notes.
Thursday, apart from the sad, dragging spectacle of two sisters, at odds over their father's estate and arguing to have the judge continue restraining orders, one against the other, the big deal was Michael Kemly, the Adelphia cable employee who, angry at his bosses and convinced he deserved advancements he had not received, cut the thick, fiber optic cable that delivered TV to thousands of Island customers on April 2, 2005. He also went around to several cable company outposts and removed the mother boards that direct the signals. Islanders experienced severe cable and internet withdrawal for a weekend, while the company mobilized its workers to splice the dozens of tiny wires back together.
Mr. Kemly entered a not guilty plea and was prepared for trial. The judge impaneled a six-person jury, then sent everyone to lunch. After lunch, the first order of business, with the jury waiting in the courthouse basement, was motions. Charles Morano, Mr. Kemly's lawyer, had already lost on the question of whether to move the trial off-Island, where thousands of potential jurors would not have shared an implacable resentment toward Mr. Kemly over a weekend's cable deprivation. But there were other motions, including one to exclude a letter to the editor published in this paper in which Mr. Kemly, who now lives in Venice, Florida, took to task his bosses. That's why I was there, to help authenticate the letter, that it was from Mr. Kemly, a frequent contributor to the letters columns, and that it had not been edited by me to say what it said, instead of what Mr. Kemly had intended. I did what I could.
But what defeated Mr. Morano's arguments on this motion and another that had to do with whether Mr. Kemly had written several emails to Adelphia managers, expressing his dissatisfaction with his job and his boss, was the vigor and relentless argument by Laura Marshard, the assistant district attorney based in Dukes County. Nearly every prosecution here falls to her, and that's a mountain of prosecutions, particularly in summer. But, Ms. Marchard likes her job, especially because she can live here with her husband and child, and instead of commuting back and forth on the ferry every day, she drives home (albeit late on most days) to join her family.
Anyhow, Ms. Marchard's successful opposition to the defense's motions persuaded the judge to find sufficient basis in the contents of the published letter and the emails to conclude that it was likely Mr. Kemly had written what the prosecution said he had and that they should be presented to the jurors to see what they would make of Mr. Kemly's writing. The judge might have accepted the narrower position taken by Mr. Morano, that some scientific evidence was required, say for example, that the police had examined Mr. Kemly's computer and found that it was indeed the source of the letter and emails before the jury could get to hear about them. But, he was overmatched by Ms. Marchard's determined effort to expand the legal foundation for admitting the documents, so the defense motions failed.
Then it was all over but the waiting. With evidence of his motivation to be presented to the jury, Mr. Kemly changed his not guilty plea to guilty, and in an hour or so, as the jurors waited in the basement, doubtless looking for a window through which they might escape their long day of doing not much, the plea deal had been struck.
And, Joe Sollitto, who had been interested in the arguments over whether the letter and emails were admissible, was reminded of how the wheels of justice grind, and sometimes it comes out fine in the end.