Sometimes the last people you expect to see in court end up there. During the Fall of my daughter’s third grade year, I proudly went with her one night to a meeting to discuss the school district’s gifted program that she’d just been invited to attend. I distinctly remember the administrator who presented the program. He stood out among the many people who spoke because of his tact, energy and charisma. He fielded tough questions and silly complaints from several cranky parents and skillfully explained the program and its goals. I remember thinking that this forty-something man would probably go far as either an administrator or even a politician.
On the way out, I spoke with him briefly and, being the son of a dedicated teacher, I thanked him for his efforts and for giving my daughter a chance to be in the program. He looked at me as if to say, “I’m glad somebody noticed” but no harsh words came to his lips. We shook hands and he went back to dealing with other parents, as several began to crowd around him with more demands and questions. I walked away trusting that my daughter, and the other kids, were in good hands.
The next time I saw him several months had passed. This time, though, I wasn’t at school, I was at work. He was in criminal court as a criminal defendant and he was in on a Wednesday, when a lot of the “colorful” cases were scheduled. As soon as I saw him I remembered reading the headline about one of the School District’s administrators getting put on paid leave after he was accused of engaging in lewd conduct and soliciting a lewd act. When I read the headline, I remember thinking to myself that I only knew one administrator and that the person described in the paper, the person who was caught in the park, couldn’t possibly be the man I had met. But here he was.
Now that I saw him in court, my parenting instincts suddenly kicked in and I felt mad at him for being a professional educator with a sick side and also felt mad at myself for trusting him in the past and coming to his aid. Was there no one I could trust anymore? Were my instincts about a person’s trustworthiness really that bad? I felt that anger that must drive a mob and I suddenly wanted to drag him into the hallway and personally punish him for passing himself off as someone so high when he was actually just a highly educated lowlife. He was not my client; he was a leader in my daughter’s school system, so I didn’t have to look at with any professional obligation or duty. I could look at him the way a person in the crowd would and I wanted swift, severe justice. I was not without sin, but, nevertheless, I was ready to cast the first stone.
Of course, I had only read the headlines at this point and hadn’t seen any of the fine print that spelled out what brought this man before the bench. He stood out in the courtroom, sitting in his double-breasted suit, next to his rather plump, middle-aged wife, , holding her hand like a couple of kids who were newly in love. He didn’t look at all ashamed and seemed either oblivious or immune to the people who stared at him and whispered or pointed as they passed by. In fact, the man looked downright relieved and carefree, like something had recently been drug out into the open and off his back.
I had seen a lot of men in court who had been caught in the parks during the late night hours. Up until this day, I had never seen a man, caught in a park, who was looking for a woman. The unwritten rule, that I saw played out on “vice day” in court, was men go to the park to find men and go to the streets to find women. Because of this rule and because I read that he was picked up in the park, I assumed that this man was seeking a gay lover. That’s what surprised me about the handholding and the carefree look. I assumed this case resulted in his being both fired and “outed.”
But the truth was very surprising. When the judge called out his name and he let go of his wife’s hand to come before the judge to plead guilty to lewd conduct, an unexpected story unfolded. The prosecutor, as part of a defendant’s plea of guilty or no contest, is required to provide a factual basis, or a summary of how the defendant’s actions met the elements of the crime charged. The prosecutor, who often tired to play amateur comedian as he summarized police reports, said “the defendant paid $40 for something you can see on Showtime every night of the week.” He went on to say that this man approached a female undercover cop at night in the park and asked her how much it would cost to look at her bare breasts. Evidently he didn’t even ask to touch, just to look, and he didn’t know, like most other late night park dwellers that a woman in the park was quite obviously an undercover cop.
Any real female prostitute would not waste her time in a park where anyone who stayed past midnight was either walking their dog or looking for anything but a female. Evidently this was one of this man’s first forays into the late night Omaha pervert scene because he hadn’t yet picked up the street or park smarts to know where to begin looking for what he wanted. His lame effort and easy capture made him seem both innocent and immoral, both pathetic and perverted.
When I heard what really happened, I was ashamed for him and ashamed of the way I reacted. I was always criticizing judges and prosecutors for believing he “headlines” and assuming the worst when it was always important to read the fine print in every case. What had looked at first like a bizarre, perverted rendezvous in the park was really just a weak attempt at seeing some live, soft-core porn. I’m not saying he was innocent or that he shouldn’t have lost his job over this behavior, only that this seemed like a silly, pathetic cry for sex or help or both by a probably overworked and undersexed, seemingly squeaky clean, school official.
The judge gave him a small fine after the man’s attorney explained that the out of court penalties, such as losing his job or seeing his face on the news, had served as punishment already. The attorney went on to explain that this man would likely have to move to another town, start at a much lower level and wait for the cruel rumors to follow him and be whispered behind his back. I wondered if he could find a job at all, given that rumors and headlines will often travel around the world before the truth, or the fine print, gets its shoes on.
In the hallway, I saw the man sit on the nearest bench and hug his wife as both cried, seemingly out of relief and happiness. Unlike most white collar criminals who came into Douglas County Court and exited seconds after they were let go, this man seemed in no hurry to hide from the gawkers. Now that his job was gone and his wife was still beside him, he looked depressurized, relieved and even serene. He looked like he had been transformed from excessively driven and superficial to laid back and real.
Of course, all of my impressions were just that, guesses from a distance. But trial courts are built on the idea that a judge or jury can accurately judge guilt or innocence by looking in the eyes and hearing the words of the witnesses brought before them. I was often wrong, as I was when I first met this man, but I still trusted my instincts and ability to judge people’s sincerity. Looking in this man’s face, he seemed a little ashamed and a lot relieved. Perhaps his look of relief resulted from the fact that he stayed out of jail, but that didn’t explain why he looked so relaxed before he went before the judge.
How he went from a successful, stressed out school administrator to an affectionate, unemployed man sitting on a public bench in the courthouse is probably an interesting story in itself. I would probably never get to hear it, though, because I was pretty sure I would never see this man again. I hope he landed on his feet and dealt with whatever it was that brought him into the park that night and into court a few months later. I also hope that he hung on to whatever it was that made him look relieved and happy, with his wife, outside the courtroom. It would be a waste if this man’s talents were not helping teachers in classrooms but it would also be a shame if he were working with kids and acting so strangely. For the kids’ sake, I hope he got both his professional and his personal lives in order. They deserve better leaders and their leaders should know better or go into something else.