Monday, April 03, 2006

Terrell (updated below)

In Omaha, ninety-percent of the attorneys are graduates of Creighton University School of Law, a local Catholic University just a few blocks from the Courthouse in downtown Omaha. Creighton made it to the N.C.A.A. College Basketball tournament in 2002, but they weren’t expected to get very far.
The first round was played on a Wednesday afternoon and the library of the Public Defender’s office was packed with a few female and almost every male attorney, surrounding the t.v. and watching the game on E.S.P.N. The room thinned out when court started at 1:00 p.m., just as the game went into the first overtime period. I stuck around, with a few of my coworkers, since I was lucky enough to have no scheduled court appearances that afternoon.
Creighton jumped out to an early lead in overtime, but the other team came back quickly. Things looked bleak for Creighton, though, when star player Kyle Korver fouled out. Even without their star, Creighton hung in the game and tied it up to send it into double overtime. With Korver out, all heads turned to Terrell Taylor, an excellent player who had demonstrated extreme talent but who had also been benched periodically throughout the year by coach Dana Altman for undisclosed “disciplinary problems.”
Taylor played very well and kept Creighton close, but Florida held the lead throughout most of the second overtime period. Spirits were down in our library as the few remaining people began to suspect that, without Korver, the lead would hold and we’d all be talking about other teams and next year.
With less than a minute left, Florida led by two and had the ball, but turned it over without scoring, giving Creighton the last twenty seconds to tie or win. Creighton couldn’t set up the shot, however, and the ball was knocked out of bounds, off Florida, with just three seconds left. One last, slim chance for a team that had been outplayed and was without its star.
If you watched the news that night, you probably saw what happened because it showed up on every highlight reel on every sports channel and every network that evening. Terrell Taylor, back in his hometown of Chicago, took the inbounds pass. With Jordanesque quickness, and with two people on him, he drove right, then left, hitting an off-balance, long three pointer for the win, just as time expired. Even the quietest secretaries were high-fiving each other in our library. We were just co-workers, but watching this perfect ending unfold was a better climax than we’d ever seen from Hollywood. Being there had to have been incredible, but just being able to watch this moment in real time was magical.

The local news was filled with images of Terrell Taylor’s shot and all of Omaha was talking about Creighton’s and Taylor’s miracle. Later, ESPN’s sportscenter led off their first round coverage with a clip of the shot and then spent several minutes covering the story behind it. Terrell described growing up in Chicago, idolizing Michael Jordan and even driving by Jordan’s statue as Terrell pulled up with his team to play, in Jordan’s house, for the first time. I remember Taylor’s voice most of all, carrying over the dozen microphones in his face, describing how he always wanted to be “like Mike” and finally got a chance to do it in his first NCAA tournament.

The moment was incredible, but Creighton’s luck didn’t hold for long They lost by a bunch in the second round, but the memory of Taylor’s shot hung around Omaha, giving us a consolation prize for this year and something to look forward to next year, as Taylor came back for his senior season.

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A few weeks later, I was waiting in Courtroom 26 for one of my clients to be sentenced by Judge Swartz. I was making some notes in the file and casually whispering to the other attorneys when the judge called out, “State of Nebraska versus Terrell Taylor.” I didn’t look up, not because I didn’t recognize the name, but because I was a little preoccupied and didn’t stop to consider that it could be the same person.

Then I heard the voice, the same voice I’d heard on ESPN a few weeks earlier, and realized this was “him.” He was in court to cancel two warrants and to be sentenced on some relatively minor charges, including driving under suspension and failure to appear in court. I listened in and heard that Taylor had managed to make this relatively small problem much bigger by getting in more trouble while he was on Judge Stephen Swartz’s “watch.” Apparently, Judge Swartz had placed Terrell on probation several months ago, meaning that the new charges he was facing could possibly get him in “double trouble” by causing him to both face new charges and to face a possible violation of probation for engaging in unlawful conduct while on probation.

Judge Swartz was known as a good trial judge but a harsh one for sentencing. He was a rare example, at least in Douglas County Court, of a judge who still believed in making the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. If they didn’t, he would find you not guilty, no matter the facts, the political winds, or what he thought of you personally. But while Judge Swartz could be the best judge your client could hope for if a case went to trial, he was not the judge you wanted your client in front of if the person could not follow a few simple rules. Judge Swartz took the law and the concept of beyond a reasonable doubt seriously, but, once he found you guilty, if you were lucky enough to be placed on probation, you either stayed out of trouble or you went to jail.

Evidently Judge Swartz had given Taylor a chance at probation several months back, had ordered him to get an alcohol evaluation, to refrain from drinking or using drugs and to refrain from unlawful conduct. Now Taylor was having to explain why he received new charges that involved driving during suspension, possession of marijuana and driving while intoxicated, and why he had missed the court dates for these charges. It wasn’t hard for him to explain why it had been difficult to be in court, since everyone knew he’d been on the court a lot for the last several months of basketball season. However, the fact that he was busy with basketball was sort of a double-edged sword because while it explained why he missed court, it didn’t excuse the fact that new charges had been filed that involved both drugs and alcohol. Terrell could say that he’d been busy with basketball, but the judge could counter by saying “you weren’t too busy to get drive drunk or to smoke marijuana though, were you?”

Terrell had a private lawyer and had done a few things (besides win the game) that I knew Judge Swartz would like. He had an alcohol evaluation in his hand (I wondered when he’d had time to do it) and wasn’t making up the type of lame excuses that I knew Judge Swartz hated. Terrell’s apologies and willingness to take his punishment seemed to put his own “hat in his hand,” so to speak, and I knew that this, and the alcohol evaluation, were the only thing keeping him from going to jail that day.

Judge Swartz was a very smart judge, and while I often disagreed with his harsh attitude toward people with chemical dependency problems, I respected his thorough understanding of the law and his willingness to work hard to interpret and dispense it. He would "max you out" in a heartbeat if he thought you deserved it, but. unlike some other ex-prosecutors on the bench, he wouldn’t take shortcuts in reaching that conclusion.

For Terrell, this looked like bad news because he had not followed a few simple rules. Judge Swartz wouldn’t care about Terrell’s recent fifteen minutes of fame, wouldn’t care how the team would fare, and wouldn’t care how the public would react. If he thought a person deserved to go to jail, they went there, no matter how much money they made, political pull they had, or athletic ability they demonstrated. He was the polar opposite of a rubber stamp and would politely listen to both sides, taking in all the evidence, and then impose whatever verdict or punishment the evidence warranted. He would find the scummiest defendant not guilty if the evidence wasn’t’ beyond a reasonable doubt and could also send the star player to jail, just before the big game, if he thought the defendant deserved it.

Judge Swartz tore into Terrell, telling him he watched the game, saw the amazing shot and saw the replay on ESPN. “But the whole time, Mr. Taylor” Judge Swartz cautioned, “I wondered if everybody watching would have been so amazed if the had known what I knew.” “Would they have fallen all over you if they’d known, like me, that you were in trouble, back in Omaha, were maybe on your way to jail, because you couldn’t stop driving when your license was suspended, couldn’t stop drinking when the court told you to, and couldn’t quit smoking marijuana when it’s against the law and against your probation for you to do so.”

From many intense moments before him, with clients by my side, I knew Judge Swartz well enough to know that what really upset him wasn’t the driving or the missed court dates, but the fact that Terrell had the nerve to get a drunk driving charge while he was on Judge Swartz’ probation. “Not only did you not do what I told you to, which was to get your license reinstated, you went out and got drunk and drove and got caught and missed court and now you want me to give you another chance,” Judge Swartz would have intoned.

This stunt, as Swartz would see it, was not only an indication of a bad attitude, but was like thumbing your nose at the court and then asking for a favor. Judge Swartz had no sympathy for those with alcohol problems believed that jail was a good alternative to treatment, especially when a defendant didn’t take advantage of a chance at probation. Unless a defendant gave him a good reason to believe in probation, jail was just a quick signature away if a person violated their probation.

Today was no exception. Terrell didn’t go to jail, but he may have wished he would have. The fact that he had an evaluation saved him from a swift, severe punishment. Since Terrell was pleading guilty to violating his probation, he could have gotten up to six months in jail, just as he could have gotten for the original charges. Judge Swartz crafted a new probation with just a few simple rules and a rough ending. Terrell was ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol, and be tested for this , for the next year. He was also ordered to stay out of trouble and to get his license reinstated. Rather than send him to jail today, Judge Swartz sentenced Taylor to begin serving thirty days in jail on a date about eleven months in the future: March 1, 2003. This was known as a “show cause” sentence, and it could be waived by the judge, but the defendant had to “show cause” why he shouldn’t go to jail when he came to court that day.

“It’s really simple, Mr. Taylor,” Judge Swartz said. “You either stay out of trouble the rest of this year and the first part of next year, or you miss the thing that you and your team dream of, the Big Dance, the NCAA tournament.” “Don’t let your team down, don’t let yourself down, Mr. Taylor.”

“You had your fifteen minutes of fame, Mr. Taylor, and I was amazed at your talent, the body control you had, the way you handled yourself on the court. I don’t know if that was just a gift or if it was something from your brain or what, but it was amazing to watch. Basketball will be over someday, though, and you’ll have to live in this world just like everybody else. We know you’re better than almost everybody else on the basketball court, but in this court, you’re no different than the rest of us and the same rules apply to you that apply to me and everybody else in this room. So you’re not going to jail today, but I’m giving you the keys to your own jail cell. If you stay out of trouble and tget it together off the court, you’ll be playing on the court next year. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s up to you.”

With that, it was over and Terrell Taylor walked out of court with his attorney. At the time, I wondered if Terrell would be able to live up to these rules and also wondered if Judge Swartz would be able to follow through with this promise next year, especially if it looked like the local team would be getting some national exposure. But I never got to find out. Terrell Taylor transferred to another school over the summer and undoubtedly ignored the requirements of his probation. Because of the transfer, he had to sit out of basketball for a year. Creighton did well the next year, even without Terrell Taylor. Although no announcers called out Terrell’s name during the month of March, I heard it one more time. I was back in courtroom 26 on March 1, 2003 when Judge Swartz called out Terrell’s name. Of course, he wasn’t anywhere near Nebraska, but Judge Swartz had sentenced him to appear in court on that day to show cause why he shouldn’t go to jail. Since he wasn’t there, and thus wasn’t able to show anything, the Judge ordered him to serve the thirty days and issued a warrant for his arrest. I knew the warrant would stay active for two or three years, meaning that if Terrell Taylor ever paid a visit to or played a game in Nebraska, he’d end up staying a little longer than he imagined.

UPDATE:
This post has been up for years, but hasn't received much attention until someone commented on it at the Bluejay Cafe. Reading the comments, I see they are right and there are probably many inaccuracies regarding who Creighton played (it was Florida and I had originally put Northern Illinois) and even about the descriptions of the game. I'm not a basketball fan but wish I was as I miss out on a lot of March Madness fun every year, having not followed college or pro basketball all year.

I hadn't planned on writing about the game until months later when I heard Taylor's voice in court so I described the game as best as I could, which wasn't very accurate. If I was writing on a sports blog and not in a journal of an (ex) public defender I would have double checked the game descriptions. Actually, I probably should have anyway and shouldn't have tried to describe an event months later. As I'm a big football and baseball fan, I can see how inaccurate descriptions would have annoyed me and made me question the author's credibility.

Still, the point wasn't to illustrate the game as much as the court hearing that came later. I wrote about that, too, from memory because, guess what, as a p.d. I couldn't afford to pay for the transcription costs to get exact quotes. I described it as I remember it, hopefully better than I did the game.

So, sorry if I tried to sound like both a basketball and a Creighton fan when I really watch about one game a year. I wanted to tell the story about what happened to Terrell in Court but messed up in the way I described what he did on the court.

I was hoping for a more positive reaction, but shouldn't have expected either bloggers or hardcore college basketball fans to hold back on inaccurate descriptions. But I'm glad somebody's reading this stuff!

(If you have any corrections you want me to fix, leave me a comment and I'll make the change. )


Copyright, David Tarrell, All Rights Reserved, 2006

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