The first time I walked into the town's Superior Court while covering a story, I was confused.
I opened the door and hit two people standing on the other side. As I waded through the small corridor, all I could see was a line of frail-looking chairs. For an instant, I thought I was in the waiting room to go into the courtroom.
Once I got a better view, I saw what was unmistakably the judge at his elevated bench and what looked like two card tables in the center of the room. They were the prosecution and defense tables.
I was finally able to snag a seat when a defendant got up as his case was called.
This is a Superior courtroom?
As proceedings went on, it was evident that most of the people taking up the chairs that lined the walls of the (court)room were occupied by defendants waiting for their case to be heard.
A row of metal chairs on one wall seemed to be for special defendants -- the ones with orange jumpsuits and handcuffs. Victims, interested parties and spectators, if there were any, had to wait their turn for a chair.
Even the probation staff had to take turns with their two coveted chairs.
"This is the courtroom?" I asked myself over and over. I was in disbelief.
At a sentencing hearing earlier this week, victims and supporters of the defendant had to sit on the floor and on the arms of chairs.
The very eloquent judge, Peter Cahill told the audience that the people of northern Gila County deserved a better courtroom and suggested we contact County Supervisor Ron Christensen.
My guess is that courtroom was beyond capacity and had there been a fire, it would have been a tragic situation. Yet, the people have a right to be present, family members have that right, and, surely, victims have that right.
It's shameful that our participation in the justice system is limited to the scant seating in our courtroom.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys should not be relegated to a small table where they are hidden behind a mass of stacked-up boxes of files. A defense attorney should not have to take his client into a closet to have a private conference.
I doubt the people of northern Gila County are expecting an elaborate courtroom like on TV, but at minimum, there should be ample seating.
Population has increased and crime has increased. We must realize that a cramped courtroom won't reduce the number of criminals, just the number of victims and those impacted by crimes who want to be present when their case comes before the judge.
I believe our justice system is handicapped by our makeshift courtroom. When a victim must stand for two hours, they may not be as likely to attend. A victim's attendance can be critical to judges like Cahill, who rely on the victim's input when sentencing a defendant.
Perhaps we would see fewer plea bargains and more jury trials if such trials did not present a logistical nightmare. While prosecutors may deny that the sub-standard courtroom has some influence on their decision, I find it hard to believe it doesn't.
Even if you have never entered a courtroom, the justice system impacts all of us. The citizens of northern Gila County, the hardworking prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the judges deserve a proper courtroom in which justice can be conducted. When a victim is denied a seat, justice is jeopardized.