Hi, my name is Laura Marti and I’m part of the MOJO (Ministry of Justice and Outreach) Criminal Justice Affinity Group, led by Cindy Adcock.

And I’m Genevieve Marti, her daughter.

We recently (July 2023) toured the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in Charlotte with about 13 other people. Criminal defense attorney Tim Emry, who is also a part of MOJO, led the tour.

Laura: Our day began at 8:45am with the traffic court. The first thing I noticed was that the room was filled with majority people of color. Our group of white people sat in the back to observe, but we kinda stood out like a sore thumb.

Genevieve: I immediately felt that I shouldn’t be there, like I was encroaching on these people’s privacy. I was glad, then, when the Magistrate at the front called people up individually to discuss their cases, despite my curiosity.

Laura: Tim pointed out that most of the people were appearing on their own for traffic violations, but in the hallway behind were a small group of lawyers representing people who were able to pay for a lawyer to represent them. I remembered that we had paid for lawyers when both of my sons got speeding tickets…because we could. I felt embarrassed – a sentiment that carried throughout the day – as my white privilege became very apparent. 

Genevieve: From there we went to a bond hearing court. What stuck out to me the most here was how the state listed all the priors (prior convictions), no matter how long ago, before anything else was mentioned. But also, I noticed that neither the defense attorney nor the defendant spoke during this process. It felt like the defendants were judged as guilty before the process even began.

Laura: There was a lawyer who was in several courts during the day who was there primarily to translate for Spanish-speaking defendants. It was a long process, in some cases done over Zoom from the jail. It struck me how much their lives had already been turned upside down, but on top of that they had to do it all through a language barrier.

Genevieve: There were several courts we observed throughout the day, but our last stop was the most memorable. We witnessed a trial (no jury, only a judge) where a 21-year-old Black man was accused of threatening a police officer – which requires that a reasonable person must believe it credible, and the individual threatened thinks it will occur. Over an hour was spent here and by the end I felt as invested as the defendant. It was heartbreaking to hear the (out-of-county) judge quickly pronounce him guilty, when the body cam video we watched clearly showed the defendant had moved AWAY from the officer after the referenced verbal “threat.” If all of us believed him innocent, we hoped that the judge might too.

Laura: The guilty decision given by the judge so quickly was heart-wrenching. The defendant was visibly distraught and turned to leave just as our group got up to exit the courtroom. He saw us and asked why we were there, wondering if it was to support the police. Clearly our presence was the last thing he wanted to see at that moment, and I felt the pain of it. 

The tour was very meaningful and more than accomplished the goal of helping us understand the criminal “punishment” system. Tim’s comments and context after each case always helped us see below the surface. 

The process felt unfair and biased against people of color and those of lower income. We saw how many people don’t have the means to survive the system, whether financially or otherwise, so it seemed easy for them to spiral further down into it. They were at the mercy of the judges, some of whom did not have much sympathy for defendants' situations, and some who were bolder in using their authority to show compassion and bring a fairer judgement. It also felt harsh and punitive, continuing to punish people over and over again, and unlikely and unwilling to give compassion and second chances. It didn’t feel like everyone was presumed innocent. 

We were very grateful for the opportunity to tour the courthouse. It opened our eyes to the disparities and racism that is evident in our criminal justice system. It was a chance to LEARN and GROW and develop EMPATHY by walking in another person’s shoes for a day.

Tags: justice, education, economic, criminal

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