June 7, 2005 Richmond Palladium-Item

Wayne County Jail Courtroom Sees First action Since Opening

June 7, 2005
Two standard court cases mark historic inception

By Don Fasnacht
Staff writer

Wayne Superior Court 2 Judge Gregory Horn made a bit of history Monday.

He became the first judge to use the courtroom in the Wayne County Jail.

With a few glitches, the idea worked.

"When we get some of the bugs worked out, we'll start using it more," Judge Horn said.

The compact and austere courtroom was included in the new jail for efficiency and, sometimes, for safety.

But it has been idle for the first 10 months the jail has been in use.

In addition to providing a bench for a judge to come and preside in person, the courtroom can be used for video arraignments -- the accused remains in jail and the judge remains in the courtroom across the street in the courthouse, linked by modern technology.

Expanded use of the jail courtroom could save money on jail personnel. Inmates have to be escorted back and forth across East Main Street and Third Street for any number of routine hearings that are part of the judicial process.

Someone has to go along to guard them, one or two jail officers with each group of inmates.

The shackled shuffling trip eats up time.

"We spend more time walking than we do in court," Sgt. Steve Lehman, a supervisor on the jail staff said.

Dispensing with those multiple trips by conducting some the hearings in the jail or over the video system has the potential of improving efficiency for the jail staff.

But it does impose some inconvenience for the court officers. The judge isn't the only person who has to cross the street. So must prosecuting and defense attorneys, court clerks and probation officers.

"But if we have people we know are going to stay in jail anyhow and we get three or four in a row, it makes sense," Horn said.

Besides efficiency, the in-jail courtroom can offer some security considerations. Inmates can't make a break for it if they remain locked up inside. And for particularly violent or endangered inmates, the courtroom is a secure haven.

"It is a lot safer," Chief Deputy Jeff Cappa said.

Monday's hearing was historic only in the fact that it was a first. Two cases were heard. They are typical of court business, a bit mundane.

Clyde D. Wooten entered a plea of guilty to misdemeanor battery in exchange for a 365-day sentence, all suspended by "time served" (55 days in his case). The plea was an agreement worked out in advance. Ronnie Stillman had an initial hearing for violation of probation. A date was set for a future hearing, normal procedure at an initial hearing.

Both cases took a total of about 27 minutes.

The glitches Monday were with microphones. Both the court clerk and people watching the procedure for the viewing room had a difficult time hearing what was being said at the counsel tables.

The courtroom provides for public viewing of the procedures, but only from an adjoining room and through a heavy glass window with sound piped in on cordless speakers.

Other judges are ready to follow in Horn's historic footsteps. "We just need a little more training to get ready," Judge Darrin Dolehanty of Wayne Superior Court 3 said. Dolehanty's courtroom is wired and ready for video arraignments. A preponderance of the misdemeanor arrests pass through Superior 3.

"But we'll probably use both (in-jail and video hearings)," Dolehanty said.