Having grown up in Indian River County, I have been to the courthouse more than a few times in my life. To get my passport. To support two friends on different occasions as their perpetrators faced sentencing. To give depositions in two cases where I was the victim of crime. To interview Judge Stikelether's daughters in front of his Seminole robe in the lobby for a story I did on the history of IRC law for Vero Beach Magazine. To get married. To get divorced. I may have been on the 'right' side of the law all those times, but each time I walked in, I felt nervous! And Class 6 of Citizen's Academy was no different. Maybe it is just the vibe of the place.
"This is the last stop for many people, the end of the road," says Sgt. Eric Flowers. "This is where it changes from the 'outside' to the 'inside'."
Before we started, Sgt. Flowers gave his regular update on what had happened the past week in IRC. We learned of a well-orchestrated drug bust in the Fellsmere area that also revealed deplorable living conditions involving children and animals. Here is part of the report: "M.A.C.E. Detective Sergeant Anthony Civita said, 'When we entered the residence, we immediately knew that the conditions would result in further charges.' Detectives located ten dogs and determined that four of them did not have water or adequate shelter. Sgt. Civita further stated, 'The home was infested with fleas, cockroaches, and flies. Numerous outlet and wall sockets had live electrical wires exposed.' Two small children reside at the home. Investigators with the Florida Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) were called to the scene."
Here are the photos from that bust:
Meanwhile back at the courthouse, once I made it through security with all of my camera gear, we officially began Class 6 in Judge Pegg's courtroom. Sitting in the audience section of the courtroom, what came next did feel a lot like being in court. We had two sides represented: Prosecution and Defense.
First we met prosecutor Chris Taylor of the State Attorney's Office, then Keirnan Moylan from the Public Defender's office. Both gentlemen gave us a thorough overview of the justice system. Mr. Taylor began his talk with the concept of Reasonable Doubt. "We are careful to only file cases we can prove in court beyond a reasonable doubt."
The burning question I had but didn't ask was, "What characteristics cause one person to become a prosecutor and another to become a public defender?" I held back because I wondered if it was a little too philosophical for the venue. One of my classmates must have had a similar thought because she put Mr. Moylan in the hot seat, asking him several times about defending people he knew were guilty. "How can you do that? How can you live with yourself?"
"My job is to protect my client's rights," he said. "I am not concerned with whether or not he is guilty. This is not about me judging them."
As he spoke I watched Mr. Taylor on the prosecution side closely. A seasoned professional, he was all poker face. He revealed nothing about how he felt in response to what Mr. Moylan was saying. Moylan went on to say, "And it is the job of the State to enforce the laws that are set forth."
Sgt. Flowers added, "It is important we have both sides here. This is what makes the system work. Both are dedicated, and this is not a 9-5 job. I have often met up with prosecutors in the middle of the night at a homicide scene for example. And if I ever was in trouble and could not afford counsel, I would be very confident in the hands of the Public Defenders."
Next we heard from Jeff Smith, Clerk of the Circuit Court. I have known him for decades, and this is a very good man and highly capable in his job which requires him to wear many hats. All court records - criminal and civil - are kept by his office. He is also the Comptroller for the entire County. When does he have time to give all he does to the Salvation Army, I wondered?
I found it interesting that all criminal evidence is kept in 2 vaults within the courthouse building. In fact we were about to see much of the inner workings of the courthouse than most residents never see.
"Do you remember the Dominos Pizza murders from 1988?" I sure do. I drove past the crime scene late that night on my way home from a friend's house. "We still have evidence from that case here in the courthouse." They have to keep evidence as long as there is a chance of an appeal.
Next we had a special visit from Judge Robert Pegg.
"ALL RISE." We did. He sat. We followed.
"What a great job I have," he began joking. "They pay you twice as much as you are worth, and people stand up when you come in. My mother would never believe it!"
Everyone sat up straight as he explained the process of being a courthouse judge, and he even demonstrated some of the special safety precautions he has at his disposal, including a bullet proof bench and two guns.
Next we went into the hidden 'secret' hallways where prisoners are transported and held before and after trial. One hallway was especially long and spooky and reminded us of The Matrix movies. "Are you the Key-Maker?"
The holding cells were much like what we had seen in the jail. Cold, steel benches. Cement all around. One shared toilet half-exposed with only part of a wall to hide it. I was again struck by the lack of privacy one loses in jail, and I understand that is part of the punishment, and hopefully reform, of the prisoner. Life becomes, shall we say, BASIC.
Sgt. Robbie Haas and Deputies Leslie Matranga and Craig Hayes shared with us some of the experiences they have had with prisoners in the courthouse. "The family hearings can be especially volatile. Emotions run wild," said Deputy Matranga. "Once a kid broke away and tried to make a run for the doors." She points to her radio which no one can outrun. "I alerted the front and they set off the automatic locks on the doors."
In other words, you can run but you can't hide. And you probably won't get very far.
My Russian sister-in-law uses a great sounding Russian word that means "surrender of the soul." That must be what it is like to be jailed. Do the time and don't fight it or it will only get worse. Better yet, don't do anything to get in there in the first place. "Straighten up and fly right," as Nat King Cole sang.
Lastly, Deputy Hayes demonstrated the security devices which greet everyone at the front entrance and which always make me nervous, maybe because there is always an assumption of guilt when one walks through that door. And rightfully so. Those deputies who stand at the front are the most important line of defense for everyone who comes into that courthouse. They don't care if I am smiling and nice. I might have an agenda and be hiding something. And thankfully they have the means to find it!
See you next week for SWAT Team!
I am an official, fully vetted volunteer with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office (Citizen's Academy, background checks, fingerprinted, etc.). Since my expertise is photo-journalism, producing these stories is one way I give back to my community.
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