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The easiest way to get to Washington’s arraignment court is to get arrested. For everyone else, finding one of the city’s busiest courtrooms means traveling to the deepest level of the H. Carl Moultrie I Courthouse, then navigating a narrow hallway and, finally, two sets of double doors. C-10, as it is known by courthouse regulars, is the first stop for nearly all defendants arrested in the District. It is the courtroom where people first appear before a judge, learn about the charges they face, and find out if and whether they will be released pending trial. For many, it will also be the last stop, given that 15 percent to 20 percent of cases are dismissed outright. In this courtroom everyone pleads “not guilty.” Long-winded legal arguments and deal-making with prosecutors are saved for later. Observers, separated from the action by a bulletproof glass barrier, struggle to hear what is happening over the clanking of leg irons, the clatter of fidgeting children, and the constant hum of a courtroom at work. It’s a place where time loses some of its meaning, with a start-stop rhythm of hurry up, wait. At any moment defendants will be churning through at a breakneck pace, then the room suddenly takes on the relaxed air of a study hall. U.S. marshals tease and joke. A prosecutor thumbs through a book. It is noisy and uncomfortable, yet predictable. Legal Times spent five days observing this entry point into the court system, which not only serves as a snapshot of the city’s crime but is also a showcase for the revolving door between jail and the street. Between April 3 and April 7 close to 400 people flowed through C-10, hauled in for crimes ranging from drug possession to assault to prostitution to murder. The vast majority were arrested for nonviolent crimes, many tested positive for drugs, and plenty had been here before. Most found themselves back on the streets a short time later, released on their personal promise to return for their next court date, usually within weeks. Or they were among the close to 70 people who saw the charges against them dropped. According to court officials, the caseload that week in April was relatively light. Some weeks the number almost doubles, says Dan Cipullo, director of the criminal division. When summer hits, arrests will likely rise about 10 percent. The arraignment process takes just a few minutes for defendants, but for those in the gallery the wait can last hours. Family and friends, overwhelmingly young and predominantly black, line the hard wooden benches in the back of the courtroom each day, struggling to keep their children quiet and anxiously awaiting word whether their loved ones will come home with them. The rapid pace makes information scarce, and the acoustics can make hearing impossible. This week, C-10 is the domain of Magistrate Judge Evelyn Coburn. With her glasses perched on the end of her nose and her dark hair knotted in a low bun, Coburn is the model of no-nonsense judicial efficiency. Lawyers learn quickly that cases are called only once in Coburn’s courtroom, and her split-second decisions are final. Magistrate judges rotate through C-10 on a weekly basis, as do assistant U.S. attorneys and one stand-in defense attorney who remains available to handle any case a lawyer has not been assigned to or isn’t present for. This particular week the defense post belongs to Paul Riley, an Irishman with a thick white moustache to match his mop of white hair. The prosecutors, Aaron Mendelsohn and Jeffrey Pearlman, both share a youthful look and an easy camaraderie with court personnel. Spread on the table before them are folders containing all of the cases for the day. A crowded table is a sign it could be a long afternoon. MONDAY, APRIL 3 There’s truth to the old adage that the worst time to get arrested in the District is Saturday afternoon. Arraignments don’t take place on Sundays, and that means an extra day in jail for everyone. It also makes Mondays particularly hectic. On this particular Monday, close to 70 defendants come before Coburn. Three at a time they’re brought from the lockup in leg irons, their hands crossed behind their back. They sit facing the wall to await their turn before the judge. Defendants are not allowed to face the courtroom, acknowledge any friends or family in the waiting area, or talk — unless speaking to the judge or a lawyer. As each suspect’s number is called, a marshal checks the defendant’s wristband identification and he or she is brought before the judge. Some are clad in jail-issued orange jumpsuits, while others remain in the clothes they were wearing when arrested. Behind them, standing guard, are two marshals who immediately shatter any fantasies of a quick escape. Today about a dozen people have their charges dropped or “no papered.” Such decisions are made by prosecutors before the judge takes the bench, leaving no public explanation for the move. With each release, the defendants make their way out of the courtroom. “Y’all have a good afternoon,” one lucky defendant tells the assembled group as he bolts out the door. Since the District abolished money bonds for most defendants in 1991, judges can only hold people if they meet certain requirements: if they are accused of a violent or dangerous crime, if they are pending trial or sentencing, or if they are on parole or probation in another matter. About half (roughly 30) of Monday’s defendants are sent home after signing an order promising to return to court and, in some cases, agreeing to stay away from a particular location specified by the prosecutor, called a “stay away” order. Those released face an array of charges: assault, prostitution, car theft, robbery, and drug charges, including distribution and possession of a wide range of drugs. For the remaining 20 or so — Eric Brown is one of them — the brief appearance means a round trip back to jail. Even though Coburn finds that Brown can be released in his possession-of-marijuana case that’s at issue here, he’s held on a custody order from another criminal case. Brown is joined by defendants accused of a variety of crimes, including escape, fleeing law enforcement, contempt of court, and carrying a pistol without a license. TUESDAY, APRIL 4 Tuesdays and Thursdays begin earlier in C-10 in order to deal with suspects charged with misdemeanors and given citations to appear. Tuesday morning passes quickly, with Coburn hearing about 14 cases — the majority of them drug possession — in 45 minutes. Two men fail to show up for their hearings, so Coburn issues bench warrants for them. Midway through the afternoon session of about 25 defendants, Francisco Fuentes catches a break. Fuentes first appeared in C-10 the prior Thursday as a fugitive from Texas charged with grand larceny. Because Texas authorities failed to pick him up within the 72-hour time frame allotted by D.C. law, Coburn has no choice but to let him go. Fuentes gives hope to three other fugitives from Maryland and Virginia who make their first appearance in C-10 on Tuesday. But others, such as Lester Starks, aren’t so lucky. Starks, who was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia (misdemeanors that would usually result in release), finds himself ordered back to jail because his current arrest came while he was on release pending trial on another charge. In that predicament, Starks is hardly alone. Of the half-dozen or so other people Coburn orders to remain in jail that day, none is charged with a violent crime. But they are defendants who have other criminal matters in the system — a common theme throughout the week. WEDNESDAY, APRIL 5 Surprise. Chief Judge Rufus King III is at the helm. It’s something he does every so often to see how the court is running. With the chief judge in the top seat, the courtroom takes on a different air. King makes quick work of his docket, plowing through almost 60 cases without stopping for a single recess — unlike Coburn, who balanced her steady pace with regular breaks. His pace is methodical, with time saved for personally addressing some of the defendants. After Mark Lewis, a fugitive from South Carolina, explains that he had come to Washington for his son’s birthday and didn’t realize doing so had violated his probation, King releases him on a $2,500 bond so that he can make a meeting with a probation officer in South Carolina later that week. But King is no soft touch. When Carl Rutherford, charged with weapons possession and selling pirated goods, complains that a stay-away order includes the store where he buys his groceries, King warns him: “Do your grocery shopping in that area, sir, and you won’t need to grocery-shop — you will be locked up.” And in the case of Anthony Johnson, arrested for distribution of marijuana, King questions why the government did not oppose personal recognizance for the defendant, who has a prior assault conviction. After prosecutor Mendelsohn assures the judge the government is fine with letting him go, King releases Johnson with this caveat: “Sir, there is risk that someone is going to lock you up. You can’t continue to commit crimes at your pleasure.” Overall, King lets more than half of the defendants who appear before him go, and another 15 or so see their charges dropped. But Alden Wilson isn’t one of them. Wilson, a D.C. school-bus driver, is accused of kidnapping one of the students on his bus. During the hearing prosecutors tell King that Wilson contacted two potential witnesses in the case. King orders that Wilson, who is also facing charges of misdemeanor sexual abuse and assault with a deadly weapon, be held until his preliminary hearing. THURSDAY, APRIL 6 Coburn’s back on the bench. And it seems the Metropolitan Police Department was busy the night before. The judge flies through the morning session with help from prosecutors, who dismiss 14 citation misdemeanor cases, mainly consisting of drug possession, assault, and theft arrests. Two defendants — Jason Choi, who got into a fight at McFadden’s, a local bar, and Angela Schaffner, accused of stealing from the upscale Georgetown grocery store Dean & Deluca — are given court dates. The deluge comes in the afternoon when about 75 defendants appear before Coburn. About 20 of them have their charges dismissed, while another 30 or so find themselves right back behind bars. One is Juan Drew, charged with second- degree burglary. When his attorney tries to persuade Coburn to release Drew on his personal recognizance pending his next hearing, the judge points out that Drew had just been given parole for another crime on March 31. “He hasn’t been able to follow instructions for just five days, counselor,” she says. Two other defendants, Howard Johnson, accused of passing bad checks, and Jerome Chase, who faces auto-theft charges, receive similar rebukes. But Coburn’s toughest stance is saved for Willie Gilliam, a fugitive from Virginia picked up on a probation violation. In a gambit, Gilliam requests an extradition hearing before Chief Judge King instead of consenting to being handed over to Virginia. By custom, such a hearing is held 30 days after the request. Gilliam figured he’d spend those 30 days as a free man. But Coburn sets a $10,000 cash bond instead. Gilliam quickly tries to change his request. “I don’t re-call cases,” Coburn says in chastising Gilliam’s lawyer, Eleanor Frucci. “Take it up with special proceedings.” Thursday, for once, includes a fair share of defendants accused of serious violent crimes. One is accused of armed robbery, another of carjacking, two others are charged with cruelty to children, and a fifth with assault with a deadly weapon. They aren’t going anywhere. FRIDAY, APRIL 7 Coburn’s courtroom takes on the feel of the start of the week, instead of the end. More than 60 defendants appear before the judge, and two-thirds go home for the weekend. Ten have their cases dismissed, while others facing misdemeanors and low-level felonies for prostitution charges, drug possession, car theft, and assault also leave the building. But then there is Leo Colter, who is going to be staying the weekend. Accused of second-degree burglary, Colter is also awaiting trial in three other cases — all of them from this year. Coburn orders he be held. Two other men slotted to spend the weekend in jail are Corey Reid, charged with first-degree murder, and Anthony Dorsey, who faces armed robbery charges. By 6 p.m. the lockup lies empty. Another judge is scheduled for Saturday’s session. Coburn’s week is finished. “Is that it?” Coburn asks the marshals. And with a quick nod, C-10 is adjourned.
Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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