Regardless of how heinous the charges, a criminal defendant is presumed innocent, with the Massachusetts Constitution providing a series of important safeguards for those accused of crimes in a court of law. Article XII provides the defendant with a right to counsel, and to due process. It also guarantees the defendant the right to “meet the witnesses against him face to face,” and to a trial by jury.
Recently we spoke with Superior Court Judge Linda E. Giles, who has served on that court for the past 15 years, and previously on the BMC for seven years. She typically alternates hearing civil and criminal cases for discrete three month periods, and frequently sits in Suffolk County. Despite welcome news of the hiring freeze of 2008 being lifted this year, Judge Giles notes that the Superior Court is still working with inadequate resources.
The criminal justice system can be unpredictable. For example, no one would have foreseen the state drug lab scandal. Yes, it’s true that the court has the benefit of a cadre of retired Superior Court judges addressing the drug lab cases on a per diem basis. But these cases still put a strain on the criminal justice system, diverting staff resources and courtroom space from other sessions. Similarly, high profile cases can attract large crowds, requiring additional security to maintain safety and decorum.
For purposes of this particular post, let’s focus on criminal sessions. In some instances, a defendant appearing in Judge Giles’ courtroom in Suffolk County is facing multiple charges. That same defendant may face additional charges in other counties.
While these criminal cases constitute a fraction of the Superior Court’s total annual caseload, Judge Giles says they present their own unique challenges:
“Criminal cases raise huge security issues in our court system. Here in Suffolk County we try murder cases constantly. Many of these murder cases involve allegations and perceptions of gang affiliation to the point where we have to be mindful of gang affiliates of both the defendant and sometimes of the alleged victim(s). Gang tensions and rivalries have resulted in melees in our courtroom, and actual stabbings outside of the courthouse.”
Noting that “any event in a criminal case can be volatile from arraignment all the way to the taking of a verdict,” Judge Giles reports that despite very professional court officers who are highly trained in maintaining security, outbreaks of pandemonium can be unpredictable and difficult to contain.
Security at the courthouse entrance includes metal detectors. Still, court officers are on the watch for calculators designed to conceal knives, cell phones re-engineered to shoot bullets, and cell phones used to take pictures of witnesses for purposes of intimidation.
A related concern is that associates of defendants follow jurors outside the courthouse. The judge must then question the juror to determine whether he has become so frightened that fairness and impartiality have been compromised.
Even if 85 to 90 percent of criminal cases result in guilty pleas, the remaining 10 to 15 percent keep the court more than busy. Between the time of arraignment and the plea or trial, there are many “court events” along the way.
Based on Judge Giles’ experience, the majority of those convicted of crimes in the Superior Court are not first timers and have already been before the district and municipal courts on lesser charges. Most are under 30, have minimal education, and come from difficult backgrounds of deprivation and sometimes abuse. Often times, she makes getting their G.E.D. a condition of their probation. She is also enthusiastic about the court’s efforts to establish pilot programs in evidence based probation.
Some 80 percent of the criminal defendants processed by the Superior Court have substance abuse problems. Within that group are also people with undiagnosed mental illness, self-medicating with alcohol, and licit or illicit drugs. Judge Giles’ observations were reinforced by a recent CBS Sixty Minutes broadcast segment highlighting the number of criminal defendants who have not gotten the mental health services they need.
Ask Judge Giles how she sees her life on the bench, and she cites the mantra of the Trial Court’s recently unveiled strategic plan, “Justice with Dignity and Speed.” Press her for greater spontaneity, and she says: “Every day I come to work I try to do the right thing. My goal is to administer justice as fairly and impartially as I possibly can. Of course, I would like to see that offenders not return to court.”