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Last month, a homeless man took ill and died in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. No big deal. That seems to have been the response of the judge and the lawyers present in the courtroom as the dying man gasped for breath. After the passing was announced, the judge and the dead man’s attorney joked about it. On April 20, 2001, Robert Waters Jr. appeared in misdemeanor court to answer charges for the crime of drinking alcohol from an open container in public. That day marked Waters’ 27th court appearance in 15 years, almost all for public nuisance offenses, like riding the bus without paying. He listed his address as a homeless shelter, but apparently spent much of his time at a public park near the White House. Waters’ family says that they would have taken him in, but that he preferred to be on the streets. Perhaps Waters was mentally ill; at a minimum he suffered from a debilitating lack of self-esteem. At one family gathering, he took a plate and ate in the basement because he thought himself unworthy to eat at the table. Waters’ low opinion of himself seems to have been shared, at the Superior Court, by Senior Judge Tim Murphy, by Waters’ own attorney, Robert Athanas, and by certain members of the U.S. Marshal’s Service. As Waters waited in a holding cell, on the last day of his life, he complained to U.S. marshals about breathing problems. They summoned courthouse nurses — you know, the people who provide aspirin to jurors with headaches — who proclaimed that Waters was fine. No reason he couldn’t appear in court that day. CRUEL AND UNUSUAL So Waters was delivered to Courtroom 115, where Judge Murphy was hearing misdemeanor and traffic cases. Waters immediately walked to the well of the room, directly in front of the judge’s bench, and there he collapsed. “Get me to D.C. General [Hospital],” he shouted. “I need air.” Judge Murphy looked down at Waters’ prone body, called for the courthouse nurses, and continued his calendar. Lawyers and defendants went about the business of the law. Waters, on the floor of the courtroom, pleaded for his life, saying, “Sir, I believe I’m dying. Please help me, somebody. I can’t breathe.” Judge Murphy told The Washington Post, “He looked like a street person … . He didn’t seem in that bad shape to me … . He kept yelling for air. I finally leaned over and told him, ‘Well, if you’d quit yelling, maybe you could get some air.’ “ That was one of the good judge’s more compassionate statements that afternoon. Court staffers told him that Waters was faking, and that he had been seen twice by nurses, who said he was fine. The judge then replied, “He can lie there. Won’t affect business one bit. Keep calling the other cases.” And so the other cases were called. After about 10 minutes, the marshals dragged Waters to the cellblock. They “thought it was a big joke,” another defendant in the cellblock told The Washington Post. “He kept asking for help … and the marshals would say, ‘Right, buddy.’ ” Shortly thereafter, Waters fell on the floor. He was not breathing. Finally the marshals called for an ambulance, but it was too late. When the paramedics arrived, Waters was in cardiac arrest. He was taken to Howard University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A coroner’s report subsequently revealed that he died of an acute asthmatic attack. If he had been treated promptly, he might have lived. Meanwhile, Judge Murphy continued his calendar. Someone approached the bench and informed him that Waters had died. The judge expressed regret, and then asked for Waters’ case number, so that the death could be noted in the record. The number wasn’t immediately available. “There’s no hurry,” Murphy said. “He’s not going anywhere.” The tragic Jay Leno routine continued. From the bench, Murphy told defense attorney Athanas, “You’re unlucky. I’ve got to be careful about who I appoint to your cases in the future.” Athanas got in on the laughs, saying, “Maybe we should call the case execution by death.” Ultimately, the judge did conclude his calendar, and he announced he was recessing that day in memory of the deceased. The effect was somewhat lost, however, when the judge could not remember the dead man’s name. No judge or lawyer should ever forget the name of Robert Waters Jr. He was a human being, but in the halls of justice he died like a dog. If anyone in that crowded courtroom had dialed 911, Waters might be alive today. Nobody did. The memory of Waters’ death should remind us of the hubris of privilege, the responsibility of caring, and the peril of indifference. We went to law school, didn’t we, to “help people”? And this man needed help; he was obviously suffering, even after the nurses claimed he was fine. In Courtroom 115, the price of taking Waters’ complaint seriously would have been, for Judge Murphy, the delay of the calendar. For a lawyer, it might have been risking the wrath of the judge, for not allowing him to run his courtroom. It should not even be necessary to say either cost would have been worth it, to save a man’s life. Senior Judge Murphy is now on a month-long vacation, and a committee has been formed to decide whether, and on what terms, he should be allowed to return to the Superior Court. A judicial career of 35 years should not be terminated on the basis of one day’s bad judgment, even as horrible a day as April 20. The decision about whether Murphy stays or goes should depend on whether his conduct that day is consistent with his usual treatment of litigants, or a unique aberration. There are conflicting accounts. PITIFUL JUSTICE Murphy’s supporters note, as character evidence, that the judge is taking his “vacation” at the shrine for the ill at Lourdes in France, where the judge is presumably helping the infirm. There, Murphy will not have to be bothered with “street people,” since D.C. Superior Court defendants with rap sheets as long as Waters typically don’t get to Europe much. As a judge in criminal court, you are more likely to see the pitiful fall down in the well of your courtroom than on a holy pilgrimage. But anyone disdainful of the humanity of these people — even when they are homeless or criminal — does not deserve to be a judge. Or a defense attorney. Or a deputy U.S. marshal. Fortunately, most judges in the Superior Court are respectful of the parties who appear before them. Unfortunately, all judges face the same pressure of overburdened dockets as Judge Murphy. The arraignment calendar includes both criminal misdemeanor and traffic cases. One former judicial officer notes that “like a nurse in an accident ward, so, too, do the various public servants become jaded, exhausted, and numb — giving rise to thoughtlessness and worse.” One possible solution is allocating more hearing officers, to handle the traffic cases separately from the criminal ones. The committee deciding Judge Murphy’s future might also consider ways to enhance “customer” service more broadly, considering the rising demand. Indeed, for too many of the District’s citizens, a visit to the criminal court is becoming as routine as a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Judge Murphy has stated that he is saddened “by any possible impression that I was uncaring and indifferent.” But the judge and lawyers in Courtroom 115 were worse: they were callous, and thus betrayed the best ideals of our criminal justice system. The reason that governments should punish criminals, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, is to communicate respect for them — the law should exalt citizens by holding them to certain standards. The Bill of Rights’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment also is based on the idea that every person, including those convicted of serious crimes, has a dignity that must be honored. Let us hope that the memory of Waters inspires our courts and their officers to treat every person — even the lowest of the low — like a human being. Maybe that way, Robert Waters can rest in peace, even though he was not allowed to die that way. Paul Butler is a professor at George Washington University Law School.

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