Twelve Things TV Doesn’t Tell You about Judges — a guest blog by Judge Scott Schofield

There’s no new SVU episode tonight, but I’m excited to introduce the Honorable Scott Schofield as our guest blogger this week!  Judge Schofield is a Michigan judge who presides over a criminal docket ranging from littering to larceny.  He’s long been known for his thoughtful decisions and hard work ethic.  Now he’s  becoming one of the hottest legal bloggers in cyberspace, bringing humor and insights to the mysterious world behind the black robe. Judge Schofield writes the blogs Accepting Responsibility, about the need to be accountable for one’s choices, to avoid weak excuses and to make sincere apologies, and  Wearing Basic Black, a blog for other judges.  Check them out!  Meanwhile, enjoy his guest post here. – Allison

Twelve Things TV Doesn’t Tell You about Judges
— a guest blog by Judge Scott Schofield

1. It’s not easy to say “No.” Offenders almost always ask for leniency, for me to give them a break. Justice is too harsh if it’s not tempered with mercy, but more often it’s appropriate to impose the full consequences that an offender has earned. It would be easier to say “Yes” and make offenders and their families happy, but instead I say “No” a lot.

2. Judges are not as good-looking and articulate as they make us appear on TV. Although many of us think we are.

3. Hearing about horrible things takes a toll on me. I see and hear things that no one should have to see and hear. I’m not complaining; this is the job I’ve taken on. But although I don’t suffer anything like those who directly experience the violence I hear about in the courtroom, experiencing trauma second-hand day after day is damaging too. I ignore its effects at my peril.

4. Sometimes I trip on my robe as I walk up to the bench. Because I wear bifocals, it’s easy to trip on the way down too. And my female colleagues have to navigate those steps in high heels.

5. I get tired of making decisions. Making decisions is what I get paid to do. And every day I make a lot of decisions, big and small. When I trudge through my back door at the end of a hard day, I’m not in a mood to make any more decisions. I ask my wife to decide what will go on the pizza we’re ordering.

6. The courthouse is not a passion pit. If the lawyers who regularly appear in my courtroom are having torrid sex with one another like lawyers do on TV, I see no evidence of it whatsoever. They’re way too busy during the day, and they’re way too tired at the end of the day to rip off anyone’s clothes but their own.

7. I have a life outside the courthouse. It’s awkward to run into my “customers” while pushing a cart through the produce section of the grocery store. They’re shocked to see me there without a robe, apparently assuming that I dwell in some courthouse back room when I’m not on duty. And I’ve found that 7 AM is the best time to shop at WalMart without seeing anyone who’s recently been released from jail.

8. Trials are a small part of what I do. And trials are not the fast-paced, riveting courtroom dramas you see on TV. Most cases are resolved not by trial but by a plea agreement or dismissal. Then there are all the pre-trial proceedings like arraignments, preliminary examinations, and motion hearings. And did I mention the stacks of paper back in my chambers waiting for my signature?

9. I don’t have a gavel. No, I’ve never banged a gavel, not even once. If I can’t control my courtroom with a stern look or a few well-chosen words, I’m not much of a judge.

10. I don’t see the success stories. If someone behaves himself and never re-offends, I don’t see him again. I only see the offenders who come back into court after more poor choices. No one comes into my courtroom and says: “Judge, I just wanted to stop by and tell you things have been going great for me lately.”

11. Sometimes I talk in code. “I’m going to take a five-minute recess” is judge-speak for “I need to attend to an urgent call of nature.” I really don’t think any further comment is needed.

12. I’m not likely to get my own show. Unlike the judges on those syndicated afternoon TV shows, I am not allowed to belittle, abuse or disrespect the lawyers or litigants. That’s as it should be. Everyone who comes into my courtroom is entitled to courtesy and respect. So, there were no offers from Hollywood clogging up my inbox this morning.

SVU Episode #13-5: Missing Pieces

Recap: A young couple from Buffalo comes to Manhattan and claims that their 3-month-old baby was stolen along with their car. Soon mom and dad’s stories start to conflict and fall apart. Things look even more suspicious when the baby’s fecal matter is found inside a cooler.  Eventually, the detectives find the baby buried in a beach. The father then confesses that he shook the baby to death, while the mother confesses that she drowned the baby in a tub. But, it turns out, both parents were lying. The ME discovers that the baby died of SIDS. The parents staged the abduction to cover the unexpected death, and then confessed to protect each other. At the end, the detectives let the sobbing couple go home.

Verdict: B

What they got right: This is such a tragic scenario, but one I had to deal with all the time. A couple times a month, we’d get the case of a baby who died from or suffered catastrophic injuries. Of course, the infant can’t tell us what happened, so investigators are left to figure it out as best we can. It’s very difficult, as an emotional and evidentiary matter. Often, the cause of the injuries is Shaken Baby Syndrome, where the child suffers severe brain damage from being shaken. Shaken babies’ brains show a particular pattern of brain injuries, but that pattern can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from a baby who merely fell off a tall bed onto a wood floor. Investigators rely heavily on the stories given by the parents, but must take these stories with a grain of salt, as the parents are often the ones who inflicted the injuries. The long, drawn-out questioning in this episode – with the detectives agonizing over the case, trying to figure out what the hell actually happened, all the while losing time with their own kids – was very realistic.

What they got wrong: There have been plenty of cases in the last decade of parents falsely claiming that their children were abducted. Never has there been a case where SIDS was the actual culprit. And it didn’t make much sense. Why would the parents confess to a much worse story than what actually happened? Yes, people occasionally make false confessions. But saying you drowned your kid when you know that he died in his sleep seems not only unwise, but unbelievable.

At the end of the episode, SVU decides to let the parents go free. “They’ll be paying for this for the rest of their lives,” Nick says, and everyone nods sadly. Not in the real world. They’d be facing obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence, and lying to the police charges. At the very least, the mom’s statement that “everyone knows bad things happen in New York City” would get her some charges from this crew.

Finally, I was underwhelmed with their “poop in the cooler” evidence. Not to be totally gross, but . . . I have two pre-school-aged boys, and a small layer of their poop probably coats every item in my house. I doubt any of it would have much evidentiary value.

On a side note, did anyone else notice that the DA is looking paler and paler, and her hair getting more maroon, every episode? My theory is that she’s turning into a vampire. Hey, that might be a hot show these days: vampires solving sex crimes! What do you think?


Meth Makeover

In over a decade as a prosecutor, I spent a lot of time waiting in police stations, killing time by reading the public service announcements. The “Faces of Meth” posters are always the most morbidly fascinating.  Drugs can mess you up in many ways, but none will destroy your face faster and more dramatically than crystal meth. Check it out:

SVU Episode #13-4: Double Strand

Recap: Blond women along the east coast are being terrorized by the Atlantic Coast Rapist. In tonight’s episode, our SVU detectives seem to have caught him at last! The man’s DNA is a perfect match, the victims pick him out of a lineup, and the timeline of his job transfers perfectly correlate with the geography of the rapes. “Wish all my cases were all this easy,” the DA says. But something isn’t sitting right with our new detective, Nick. The suspect seems like a nice fella. Munch waxes nostalgic for the glory days when DNA didn’t get in the way of what your “gut” told you. Turns out, the rapist is actually the twin brother of the suspect. The suspect didn’t realize he had a twin because he was adopted. But the evil twin had learned it, and based his entire decades-long crime spree on pinning it on his brother. SVU is flummoxed – how can we prove the rapist is the evil twin and not the good twin? They bait a trap: conveniently blond new detective Amanda jogs through the park where the evil twin works. He chases her, holds a knife to her throat and tries to rape her in broad daylight. He is arrested, and Amanda then extracts a sobbing confession from him in the final scene.

Verdict: B-

What they got right: There really was an East Coast Rapist, who preyed on women in cities along (you guessed it), the east coast. His DNA was found at some rapes, but there was no match in CODIS, the national database of convicted felons. Police across several states launched a massive and laudably creative manhunt for him. They enlisted the help of the press and launched a website devoted just to him. The Washington Post ran a big article on his habits and MO. A civilian read the article, thought the guy sounded familiar, and tipped off the police. The police followed the suspect, picked up a cigarette butt he dropped, and DNA tested it. It was a match. That man is now in custody, charged with a series of rapes. No evil twin has been implicated in that case.

It’s also true that identical twins have the same DNA as each other, but different fingerprints. Whenever a prosecutor has a case based on DNA, she has to make sure her suspect doesn’t have a twin. (Conditioned this way, I shouted “He’s a twin!” sometime after the first commercial break, but that’s kind of obnoxious, and I vacillated about admitting my outburst here on the blog. But we’re all friends, so there you go.) There was a set of twin brothers in D.C. who got away with a series of small-time crimes for a period by constantly pointing to the other twin (creating reasonable doubt) or having their twin create an alibi for them. After a while, though, they got caught. If you’re considering a life of crime, it definitely helps to have a twin.

What they got wrong: There’s a serial rapist who likes blonds – okay, let’s send a blond running past him! He’ll have to try to rape her, right? This ploy is just plain ridiculous. But it comes up so often on SVU. Last season, there was a guy who had a fetish that compelled him to cut women’s hair. So SVU sent Olivia into a park, where she sat on a bench flipping her hair for a few minutes and – wham! – the Haircutting Horror popped up to snip off a lock. I’ve never heard of a trap like this being used. It wouldn’t be effective. Even the East Coast Rapist – the guy so horrific he got his own website – only struck once or twice a year, at the most. Real crime is way to random, sporadic, and unpredictable to be able to bait a trap like they do on SVU.

And DNA testing is way more effective than anyone’s “gut.” Munch might be nostalgic for the old days. But would you prefer the heartfelt opinion of a lovable but slightly crazy, conspiracy-theorist detective, or a nice solid DNA match? ‘Nuff said.

SVU Episode #13-3: Blood Brothers

Recap: This storyline was an imaginative twist on the Arnold Schwarzenegger situation. In real life, Arnold had an affair with his housekeeper, who got pregnant and had his baby.  Neither of them mentioned that to Arnold’s beautiful and politically-connected wife, Maria Shriver. Housekeeper and child lived in the mansion with Arnold, Maria, and their kids for over a decade. Maria finally learned the truth when The Enquirer broke the story. The fact that no crime was committed then says a lot about Maria’s self-control.

In this episode, a shy 13-year-old girl is pregnant but her hymen is still intact. SVU is called to find out who the father is. The girl won’t disclose at first, claiming that she was impregnated miraculously by God. That might work on another network, but SVU isn’t that kind of TV show. The detectives go looking for a human culprit. After dispensing with the usual suspects (a priest, a teacher who’s on the sex-offender registry), the detectives hone in on Arturo, the girl’s schoolmate and best friend. Arturo denies having sex with her, but points to Tripp Raines, the 13-year-old son of a wealthy and powerful Ambassador. Arturo’s mom used to work for Tripp’s family; Arturo introduced the girl and Tripp. Tripp cockily admits to taking the girl’s “cherry,” but doesn’t care that he’s messed up her life.

The girl finally admits she had sex with Tripp, once, in his bedroom, during a party at his house. Tripp said she was pretty, they kissed, then he pushed her down on the bed and had sex with her. She said “no,” but Tripp asked if she wanted him to like her; she said yes, and he continued. Afterward he sent her roses and a note that said, “Still dreaming about you.” She loved him, thought they were going to be married, and dreamed he would make her a princess.

The detectives go to the Raines family mansion and try to talk to Tripp’s father, the Ambassador, without his wife. “We have no secrets from each other,” the Ambassador’s wife sniffs. Uh oh, start the scary music, because you know what that statement means. This episode won’t end until the wife’s still-beating heart has been torn from her chest by some colossal secret her husband is harboring.

Meanwhile, the detectives find Tripp bludgeoned to death in Central Park. Turns out Arturo did it. He had figured out that he was the Ambassador’s son – which got him and his mom kicked out of the Raines house (with a hefty payoff). And Arturo was deeply in love with the girl, and offended by his half-brother’s cavalier attempt to make her get an abortion.  You can’t solve every problem with money, Arturo sobs. With all the emotions swirling around his adorable little head, Arturo beat Tripp to death with a rock. (Is it just me, or was that cute little actor the furthest thing from a homicidal maniac you could imagine?)

Verdict: B+

What they got right: Let’s handle the most uncomfortable physical fact first. Yes, a girl who’s had sex could still have an intact hymen. It doesn’t mean a virgin birth is about to happen, just that that piece of anatomy is stretchy and tough. This doesn’t actually come up in many sex offense cases.

There is no florist-client privilege. These days, a lot of people believe in privileges that don’t actually exist. I’ve had people argue that information they told their hotel, their postman, or their yoga instructor was privileged. Nope. Basically, you have a privilege for things you tell your doctor, spouse, attorney, or  religious leader.   That’s all. And in certain circumstances, even those can be circumvented.

Sex-crime victims often don’t want to identify their assailant. I’ve actually seen remarkably similar cases – usually involving teenage girls – many times. Often, the victim is in love with her assailant and her allegiance is with him, not the police.

The sex crime in this episode was a tough call. Olivia thought they had a good forcible-rape case against Tripp, but the ADA disagreed. I saw the ADA’s point. It’s hard to try a case where the victim initially lied about who raped her, even before you get to the muddled issue of consent here. But reasonable minds could disagree. I can see the debate between the ADA and Olivia happening exactly that way in real life.

What they got wrong: After they determined that the possible assailant was a 13-year-old boy, the case would no longer be handled by a sex-offense DA. It would go to the unit that handles juvenile cases. If Tripp was charged, it would be as a juvenile. In D.C., the case would go from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the Office of the Attorney General, next door.

Hurry up – and wait. After Tripp admitted having sex with the girl, the detectives kept running around trying to confirm that actually happened. In most cases involving 13-year-olds, the detective would simply wait until the girl had the baby, and then run DNA testing to confirm that the suspected father was the biological father.

Finally, in most cases of a pregnant 13-year-old girl, no authorities would be called at all. There are countless teenage girls who give birth and no police officer is ever notified. The idea that the girl’s school would call the police is a nice one – but not always the case in real life, where schools see so many underage pregnancies they become numb to them. Often, I would meet girls who’d given birth to babies a year or two ago – and who’d just recently found the courage to come forward and identify their adult assailant. No reports had been made by anyone at the time of the girl’s pregnancy or birth.