Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Day of Atonement, Sept. 28, 2009

By Jim Parks

7 - And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
8 - And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat.
9 - And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.
10 - But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness
. - Leviticus 16, 7-10

Word in Court Two, the 54th Judicial District of Texas at Waco, is that the prosecutor will not be ready for trial on the twenty-eighth, the day Judge Matt Johnson set for the trial of Billy Joe Shaver.

It will be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement prescribed by the Talmud, on which the living word of God is uttered at low breath.

On Friday the 18th, during the pre-trial hearing, it was learned that there would be no deal offered for Shaver to plead guilty to one or both of the charges of Assault With A Deadly Weapon and Carrying of a Handgun on Premises Licensed for on-premises consumption of Alcoholic Beverages.

Shaver, as previously noted in these columns, shot a man in the face on March 31, 2007, for reaching across a tavern table and stirring his beer with his pocket knife. The man, a first cousin of a man once married to Shaver's former wife, Wanda, had been fussing about the fact that his cousin had turned the gun on himself and committed suicide, a circumstance his family blames on the woman to whom he had been married .

Potentially, conviction on these charges could net the seventy-year-old author of such country songs as "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" and "Fast Train To Georgia" a prison term of up to 20 years. Country luminaries such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson have recorded his songs. Robert Duvall has used him as an actor is several of his movies.

He spearheaded the "outlaw" movement among Texas singer-songwriters of the seventies. Men such as B.W. Stevenson, Michael Martin Murphy, Townes Van Zandt and David Allen Coe shared the stage with Shaver while showcasing at revues in big cities and college towns all across the state; often organized as fundraisers for PBS stations, these revues spread his fame in his home state far and wide. People learned just who wrote those songs they had been listening to on their radios for all those years. A man from Corsicana who first reached Nashville by hitching a ride on a cantaloupe truck, Shaver penned them and sold them to stars who had reached the zenith of their careers.

You might say he has not only paid his dues, but in certain ways he has kind of helped to set the benchmark by which, in certain quarters, those dues are calculated.

* * *

What kind of place is Court Two?

On the remaining docket call, after the Shaver case had been set for trial a week hence, prisoners in striped suits and belly chains, their ankles restrained by leg irons, were ushered in to sit in the jury box for appearances before the judge. It is a place of dark wood paneling under a low heavy-beamed ceiling. Natural oak furniture rims the room, enclosing the well of the court, the jury boxes, court reporter, judge's bench and witness chair. Heavy conference tables provide seating for attorneys.

A Hispanic man dressed in an orange jump suit is curtly denied a bail reduction in the offense of aggravated sexual assault.

A black man dressed in the striped pajamas stands before the judge and decries his treatment by court-appointed investigators and his attorney, men, who, he claims, "Don't even pay no attention to me.

"See, we don't be having no law library up in here that we can go to visit so we can find out what the law is on these here cases. You see what I'm saying."

The judge rests his well-barbered head on his knuckles and stares at his laptop computer screen as the man uses the phrase, "You see what I'm saying," according to a female prosecutor who is waiting to hear out the pleadings, a total of 32 times.

As it turns out, he has been convicted of multiple previous burglary offenses and was on parole when officers attempted to apprehend him for yet another traffic violation and he evaded arrest and led them on a merry chase.

He had been sentenced on two prior burglary offenses, which sentences had been suspended, and upon which the Court proceeded to sentencing when he was first brought in several months previously. By his account, the process has taken more than six months.

He is asking that the judge grant a motion made by his attorney to withdraw from the case because the man finds it impossible to deal with him.

"I don't know if I was sentenced to 10 years probation, 10 years deferred adjudication or 10 years in TDC (Texas Department of Corrections)" he tells the judge.

Exasperated, Judge Johnson looks up sharply, sits up straight and says in no nonsense tones, "You were sentenced to 10 years in TDC. I don't know how you could have failed to see that. I'm sure you see what I'm saying."

Court officials, bailliffs and other defendants smile behind their hands.

"I suggest you get along with your new attorney," the judge continues. "You will not be appointed another one."

Stylishly attired in a subdued plaid tan two button suit with a subdued red-stripe, he arises, informs a court coordinator that the screen on his laptop is hopelessly frozen and he can't get it to power down, reset or quit out of the operating environment. He strolls out of the courtroom to his chambers while she frantically tries to locate an information technologist during the rapidly approaching lunch hour.

Another attorney in a very frustrated mood, a slender cowboy type with wispy blonde hair razor cut and dressed in a Palm Beach wash and wear Italian-styled ventless suit cut like an Armani, but with single breasted tailoring, attempts to reason with the last prisoner seated in the jury box.

Clearly, he wants to get away to his lunch and back to his office.

A light-skinned black man with a shaven head, the prisoner calmly argues that he was never informed that he had been offered a plea bargain of two seven-year sentences, to run concurrently, in return for a plea of guilty on both of the charges against him.

"It's the best deal you're going to get," the attorney says, his face reddening. "I've explained all this to you before."

The black man shakes his head from side to side slowly, saying he is unwilling to serve seven years, then start serving the second seven year sentence.

"That's not what concurrent means," the attorney says, exasperated all over again. "I explained all that to you."

The man shakes his head again, then renews this pointless argument.

Finally, the attorney scoops his paperwork up from the rail of the jury box, buttons his jacket and says, "Let me go check and see what they say." His client has demanded that one of the charges against him be dropped.

He sweeps out of the courtroom, the trim tail of his Italian coat following him through through a heavy ornate wooden side exit door that leads to a tunnel to the DA's office, which is located in an annex building next door. When he returns, he is in a much better humor, ready to go back to work on the obdurate, argumentative man who has discovered a way to push his buttons and make him, a learned counselor, a licensed member of the bar, into an errand runner.

While he is gone, two sheriff's deputies serving as court bailiffs attempt in vain to explain the meaning of the word to the man. They appeal to his sense of reason. Their entreaties fall upon deaf ears. He continues to shake his head from side to side and ask murmurred questions.

They throw up their hands and say only his attorney can give him legal advice. They are merely trying to help him understand the offer of a pair of terms to be served concurrently. "Why would he tell you something wrong?" one of the crewcut men asks.

The attorney's frustration returns immediately as he returns and he and his client resume their arument over the meaning of the word, concurrent.

Finally, the harrassed professional stalks out of the courtroom into the balconied rotunda that overlooks the lower two floors in this double-domed palace of justice.

As I exit, I hear him explaining over his cell phone that his client has been charged with "attacking a public official" as the man tried to take him into custody and "evading arrest."

The precipitating incident stemmed from some traffic violation, after which he allegedly attempted to flee the officers who pursued him.

One can only speculate as to the fate of a seventy-year-old man facing a twenty year prison term. If he must follow cases like these, will the judge be in a frame of mind conducive to seeing things his way?

It's a ticklish question.

The Legendary fully intends to be there from gavel to gavel.

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