The Love Court

Sara Catania is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.

In most urban American settings, the Compton Courthouse would seem a modest structure. But here, rising 14 stories above the flats of South L.A.--a low-slung landscape of scrappy bungalows, storefront churches and off-brand retailers hawking fried turkey or discount electronics--it's a formidable presence. From a distance, the block of white concrete striped with black windows resembles an enormous cage, or a prison cell. It's a tempting target: Police at one point counted 55 bullet holes in the building's western facade. Closer in, graffiti appears on every markable surface, sprayed on the front steps, scraped into the aluminum elevator frames and etched into the windows.

Decades of courthouse lore perpetuate Compton's gangsta image: a murder in the parking lot, an attempted carjacking of an attorney a block away and the courtroom stabbings of two bailiffs by a defendant. Bulletproof windows were installed years ago, after a judge found a potshot lodged in the bathroom in his chambers. The courthouse handles all the crimes in South L.A.--including more killings a year than any other jurisdiction in California. At any given time there are between 40 and 50 murder cases "in the building." It is the largest of the 10 branch courthouses in Los Angeles County, and its nearly 800 workers may be the most punctual; get a parking spot in the underground employee lot and you're all but assured that you never have to venture outside. Stephen R. Kay, who runs the courthouse district attorney's office, calls the environment "siege-like" and compares it to the film "Fort Apache: The Bronx."

Yet the Compton Courthouse has another, less-celebrated reputation--one of tolerance, humor and humanity. In the midst of a hostile climate, perhaps in part because of it, a close camaraderie and sense of common purpose have flourished. The place has the feel of a small town, where hard work is respected and eccentricities are indulged, and it has become an assignment of choice among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Those who land positions here tend to stay, and those who leave often wind up coming back. A court reporter who trained at Compton when she was a student in the late 1970s returned after graduation and has been there ever since. One judge met his future wife at the courthouse when he was a criminal defense attorney and she was a courtroom clerk. They were married in a church he can see from the window in his chambers.

Lucy Howard, who has worked as a bailiff in Compton for more than 20 years, considers the courthouse a sanctuary, its workers ambassadors of righteousness. "You don't say it, but you tend to know that you're all on the same mission," she says. "It just touches you deep in your heart." Over the years, many a defendant has told her that Compton is known in the community as the "Love Court." "It's not like they're here for anything nice. It's not like it's a social visit," she says. "But they tell me, 'You go to Compton, you get love.' "

In the Compton Courthouse, the barriers between people that exist elsewhere seem to have been reconfigured into one enormous, invisible shield--with lawyers and judges, clerks and court reporters all together on the same side. Public defenders vie for Compton assignments because jurors here are more likely to be wary of the police and to sympathize with defendants. They love to tell the story of the colleague whose homeless client was charged with felony assault for allegedly pelting police officers with rocks. He concluded his closing argument with: "Wah, wah, wah." (His client was acquitted of the charge.) "If you've been through the rabbit hole the other way, you tend to have a different take on things," says Andy Thorpe, a longtime public defender. Prosecutors seek out Compton because a win here enhances their credibility. "I tell my trial lawyers if they can successfully prosecute a case in Compton," Kay says, "they can do it anywhere."

In the courtrooms, attorneys, bailiffs and judges banter about vacations, recipes and family woes, seemingly oblivious of their ever-present audience--the defendants, witnesses and family members waiting for cases to be called. As in any battle zone, working in a place where even murder can take on a surreal mundaneness creats a heightened familiarity and unselfconscious intimacy among colleagues. "We have an enormous number of violent offenders in here every day, an enormous number of people with mental illness," says Russell Griffith, who has worked as a public defender in Compton for 14 years. "It makes sense for all of us to pull together, and we do. You can't imagine what a difference it makes."

Stepping into an elevator on a recent morning, a sheriff's deputy greeted an attorney. As the doors slid shut, he said, softly, "I heard about your wife's miscarriage."

"Yeah," the attorney said.

The elevator lumbered upward.

"Mine too," the deputy said.

"Yeah," the attorney said. The doors slid open and several people exited the elevator. A few more got on. "Mine was seven weeks."

"Mine was nine," said the deputy.

The doors slid open. "It's pretty rough," the attorney said.

The deputy patted him on the back and stepped out. "I feel for you, man."

"You too," the attorney said. "Thanks."

Where the elevator stops and what the courtroom looks like are two general indicators of how much trouble a defendant is in. Traffic violators don't make it off the ground floor, and the hard-core stuff--the felony trials--usually happens on 10 through 12. There the courtrooms seat 100 or more on upholstered seats with plenty of room to stretch out for a long, bumpy ride.

Down on 4, the arraignment courtrooms are cramped affairs, a few rows of seats four or five across, with less legroom than coach on a commuter flight. Visitors are so close to defendants that the temptation to violate the prominently posted "no talking to custodies" rule is difficult to resist. One afternoon a trio of women passed a tiny pink bundle between them, and when a certain handcuffed defendant was brought out they hissed, like a Greek chorus, "Take the deal. Take the deal. Take the deal." Repeated sharp looks and reprimands from bailiff Lucy Howard did little to dampen their zeal. Not until the defendant turned and glared did they go mute. It was a domestic violence case, and he opted to go to trial. As he was being ushered back to his cell, he turned to face the spectators. The women held up the bundle, a slumbering newborn, and for a moment his hardened face broke into a new father's joyful grin.

the Compton Courthouse tends to attract true believers, whatever that belief may be. Kay, the chief deputy district attorney, helped put Charles Manson behind bars. Before coming "inside," bailiff Howard patrolled the streets of Compton. "I used to be mildly liberal," says Thorpe, the public defender. "After 20 years of doing this, I've become quietly radical." Thorpe started taking Spanish lessons at age 50, to better communicate with his growing number of monolingual clients. "This is probably the highest type of law you can practice," he says.

But there is also room for personal idiosyncrasies. At the Compton Courthouse, such tendencies are respected, and in some cases proudly cultivated. Among the most memorable characters is Maxcy Filer, a lawyer who may hold the record for number of attempts to pass the California bar: 48. It took him so long that in the meantime his son, Kelvin D. Filer, became a lawyer and started his own firm. When the elder Filer finally passed the bar in 1991, at age 60, his son gave him his first job, as a law clerk in his office. But after Filer junior became a judge, the old man gave him his comeuppance. In open court, he called the judge by his childhood nickname, "Scooter." (To which the judge responded by good-naturedly threatening to hold him in contempt--before reassigning the case to another courtroom.)

Maxcy Filer now has his own practice, and Kelvin Filer is still at Compton. Despite the depressing nature of his work--handling felony preliminary hearings for a succession of young men, most of them African American or Latino, many well on their way to long prison terms--it would be difficult to find a more enthusiastic supporter of the courthouse. "I love working here," Filer says. "People say I'm crazy, but it's the greatest place in the world. I think all of us here understand that what we are doing is essential. Every case. Every day. I hope I can stay here my entire career."

Filer was born and raised in Compton, and he sees himself as a role model to the children living there now. He speaks at local schools, participates in a mentoring program and is helping set up a teen court. Each summer he selects an intern from a local high school to work in his office. "I want them to know there are good people here," he says. "It's not just a place where bad people are tried."

John Cheroske has struggled to dispel that image as well. He has worked as a judge at the courthouse for 12 years, the past four as supervising judge, setting the calendar and meting out the workload. Since he has been in charge, the courthouse has opened an on-site child-care center and installed all new furniture in the jury room, as well as provided jurors with free coffee and tea, movies on a large-screen TV and computer monitors for checking e-mail. Each September, the judges host an employee appreciation picnic on the plaza during the lunch hour. "We've got the sheriff's deputies for protection," he says, then chuckles and sighs, knowing he's only half joking.

Cheroske's chambers are protected by a life-size cutout of John Wayne and several replicas of guns, including a paperweight on his desk and a mounted model of the .45 Wayne wielded in "True Grit." Wayne won his lone Oscar for his role in that film as a hard-drinking, ill-tempered loner who brings a band of desperadoes to justice. When asked if he's a hunter, Cheroske quickly demurs. "Oh no," he says, "I've never killed anything."

Cheroske prides himself on running the courthouse so that it is largely independent of bureaucratic oversight. "Even though we have the heavy, heavy cases, we don't have anybody looking over our shoulder all the time," he says. "The best-run branch court in any county is the one the presiding judge downtown doesn't hear from." His reputation is that of a taskmaster, pushing cases along ("moving the meat," as one lawyer put it), checking up on attorneys and losing his temper with little prompting, his neck straining at his collar and his face turning pink. He says he recently confronted an attorney he caught lying to him about the length of a trial in another courtroom. "I growl at 'em and make nasty comments to get their attention," Cheroske says cheerfully. "You have to kind of keep a leash on 'em."

Griffith, the public defender, takes Cheroske's tantrums in stride. "If I could have a choice between a judge who's really, really nice to me and appreciative of my motions and sends my guy to prison, or have him be short and rude and grant my motions, I'll take that any day," he says. Some attorneys criticize Cheroske's unwillingness to grant continuances. But since Cheroske's been in charge, Compton has moved from one of the slowest courts in the system to one of the most efficient. "I don't do it for the stats," says Cheroske, who worked as a defense attorney for 30 years before becoming a judge. "I don't do it for anybody. We have all these serious cases to deal with every day. We want to get them handled as quickly and efficiently as we can, keeping everybody's rights in mind--because we know next week we'll get a new batch."

In the day-to-day at Compton, a few minutes in the presence of a courtroom character is sometimes the best recourse from utter despair. If you're lucky enough to happen upon two at once, that's a bonanza.

Hideo Nakano, known to his friends simply as "Ernie," spent the first years of his life in a Japanese internment camp and the last 30 as a public defender. In his manner and appearance he seems to welcome cultural stereotypes: He enhances the effect of a shoulder-length mane of mostly white hair with a long goatee that in a less-PC era might have been called a Fu Manchu, and he employs an elliptical style of argument that some find infuriating. Nakano describes himself as a "troublemaker and insubordinate." The supervising public defender at the courthouse, Stuart Glovin, says he's an invaluable asset. "Ernie is the kind of guy who comes in on his day off to help out," Glovin says. "I don't know of anybody who's more committed to his work." In one 18-month period Nakano did 34 trials, or about one every two weeks. That's an astonishing achievement, says Glovin, surpassing even the heavy demands normally placed on court-appointed attorneys. Nakano says his mandate is simple: to "minimize the liability" of his clients. "I can't make them whole," he says. "Only God can do that."

Nakano is a slight man, but his presence in the courtroom is hard to ignore. He wears shirtsleeves in court, and on a recent morning, seemed to think nothing of breezing past the many "No Gum Chewing" signs to appear before Judge William R. Chidsey Jr., his jaw rhythmically working away on a wad of Nicorette.

When Chidsey, the newest character here, was assigned to the Compton Courthouse 18 months ago, the former civil lawyer immediately made his priorities known. He installed a miniature stoplight on his bench, along with a digital clock and an hourglass. "If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: Time is money," he says. "I want to use it as efficiently as possible." He says he never turns the stoplight on during trial, but he does enjoy demonstrating it for attorneys.

Chidsey hears felony criminal trials, but in between he often pitches in with a day or two of preliminary hearings. This was one of those days. Nakano was on the calendar, along with several other attorneys. Chidsey chose to handle their cases first, and then broke for lunch. "He's saving me," Nakano said, chewing his gum thoughtfully, "like a maraschino cherry." That afternoon, Nakano took his seat at the defense table and leaned back in his chair, crossing his hands behind his head. His first client of the afternoon had been accused of trying to cash a fake check for $50. The man spoke no English, yet he had signed a confession.

The sheriff's deputy who had written the police report was testifying. Nakano walked over, rested his elbow on the stand and leaned in, until he was a few inches from her face. "When you talked to my client during that interrogation session, did you take notes or just keep it in your head?"

The witness leaned away and frowned. "I don't remember," she said.

"How long was the interview?" he asked.

"I don't recall," she replied.

Nakano picked up the confession between two fingers and held it away from himself, as if it were a dirty diaper. He then brought it very close to his face, examining each side once, twice and then a third time, to demonstrate that he was looking very hard for something he could not find.

Nakano argued to Chidsey that the interpreter who took the confession was not properly certified, that therefore the confession was not valid, and that the confession document entered into evidence was not legal. "There are serious questions as to the document's au-then-ti-ci-ty," he said, drawing the word out. He suggested that his client, who was on disability, tried to pass the check because of desperate financial circumstances. It was a masterful display, all the more so coming from an overworked court-appointed attorney. Nakano asked that the case be dismissed.

Chidsey turned to the papers on his desk. For a few moments the courtroom was silent. Nakano rocked in his chair and stroked his goatee. Chidsey looked up. "The one word I do know in Spanish is 'Si,' " Chidsey said. "On this confession he's checked the boxes that say 'Si.' " Chidsey denied the motion and set bail at $40,000. And so it went, with Nakano digging into each case and Chidsey denying the motions to dismiss every time.

Afterward, in the hallway, an elderly Latino couple approached Nakano and held out an official-looking document that was limp from repeated creasing. "I don't speak Spanish," Nakano said, taking the paper. "Vamonos," he said. "Follow me." He led them to the public defender's office, where he disappeared to find an interpreter. When he returned, the interpreter explained that the couple's son was going to be tried for drug possession. They wanted to know what the maximum sentence might be. "I don't know," Nakano said. Evening was coming on. Everyone was tired. They looked at him and did not budge. Nakano clasped his hands and brought them to his face. "If I told you he'd be eligible for five years you wouldn't sleep tonight, so I'm not going to tell you that," he said. The man and woman frowned. Nakano turned to the woman. "Go home and cook for your husband," he said. "He looks hungry." The man smiled and patted his stomach. The couple thanked Nakano and slowly walked away.

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