Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sometimes, You Just Need a Little Levity

Amid all the chaos and doom and gloom that unfold in a criminal courtroom on a daily basis, lawyers and judges offer some moments of levity at times. It’s often a welcome part of the day when those involved in such serious, heavy matters can elicit a smile or produce some laughter with a lighthearted comment or anecdote.

Here’s just a few moments of amusement that Mr. Everybody’s Business observed recently in Montgomery County Court.
Montgomery County Courthouse/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

During a trial in which the identity of a man who fled from Pottstown police was the main sticking point, Assistant District Attorney Benjamin McKenna and defense lawyer Cary B. Hall debated how an officer could identify the defendant three weeks after the police chase when he saw the man walking along a Pottstown street.

McKenna maintained the officer got a good glimpse of the defendant during the chase and recognized him “instantly” when he saw the man in downtown Pottstown several weeks later. During his closing statement to jurors, McKenna tried to make his “instantly” point by snapping his finger. 

The snap was weak, Ben. Barely audible.

“I wish I could snap better,” McKenna mustered up a joke, eliciting laughs from those in the courtroom.

During his closing statement, Hall questioned the ability of police officers to get a good view of the driver of the fleeing car with all the “craziness” surrounding a car chase at night. Hall compared the flashing lights of the chasing police vehicles to the flashing lights in a nightclub.

But then Hall added to the amusement of jurors, “I haven’t been to a club in a while. I’m 45, what kind of club am I going to?”

Five defendants, with five separate lawyers, can be a bit much to accommodate at a single defense table, that’s for sure. So on a recent day when Judge Steven T. O’Neill was presiding over a pretrial hearing for some alleged drug trafficking defendants, the judge noticed there weren’t enough chairs for all the lawyers.

“Are you comfortable, Mr. Reifsnyder?” the judge asked defense lawyer Nicholas Reifsnyder as he stood in the courtroom, while four other lawyers had seats. 
Nicholas Reifsnyder/Photo Carl Hessler Jr.

“I waive the right to a comfortable chair, judge,” Reifsnyder responded, eliciting laughter from his colleagues.

Assistant District Attorney Alec O’Neill offered some levity during a trial last month when he called Pottstown Police Officer Jeffrey Portock as a witness during the trial of an accused Pottstown shooter. O’Neill asked Portock about his law enforcement background and the officer responded that he now is part of the K9 patrol division.
“Is he keeping the car running right now?” O’Neill asked Portock, referring to the K9 partner, a comment that drew laughter and smiles from jurors and Judge Gail Weilheimer.
“He’s keeping watch,” Portock, not missing a beat, responded with humor.

Judge Gail A. Weilheimer/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
During the same trial, Weilheimer got a note from the jurors during their deliberations, asking for another reading of the law for a particular charge. 

As the judge, out of earshot of jurors, conferred with Prosecutor O’Neill and defense lawyer Benjamin Cooper about the wording of her explanation to be read to the jury, Cooper said, “I object, your honor.”

“Why?” Weilheimer asked during the impromptu conversation not heard by jurors.

“Because that’s what he does,” O’Neill uttered quickly with a smile, acknowledging the friendly competition between the lawyers.

Outside of court one day last month, Assistant District Attorney Douglas Lavenberg was asked to comment about the retirement of one of his mentors, Bradford A. Richman, who headed the DUI prosecution unit since it was launched in 2014, a unit where Lavenberg cut his prosecutorial teeth. Lavenberg had glowing comments about Richman, who he likened to a father figure who he could turn to for guidance on the job.

But Lavenberg couldn’t resist the temptation to joke one last time about Richman’s trademark of wearing a bow tie to work each day.
Bradford A. Richman/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“I really think that Brad’s biggest flaw is his superiority because of his ability to tie a bow tie and he holds that over everyone and says, “If you need lessons come see me.’ Even with those lessons I can’t do it.  So, his superiority complex has really gotten out of control,” Lavenberg laughed good-heartedly.

Thanks to all of those who offer a little levity in court from time to time. Sometimes we just need it.

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