It’s more than “Baby Hope,” An Observation of Criminal Court

Oct. 22, 2013 – The pavement outside the Criminal Court of New York City was strewn with tripods and reporter microphones – CNN, Bix, Telemundo, FiOS 1. The catch phrase of the day was “Baby Hope.” Today a Grand Jury had indicted Conrado Juarez for the murder of his cousin and the reporters were waiting outside to speak to his lawyer. He is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 21.

In 1991, the body of an unidentified girl, sodomized and smothered, was found stuffed in a cooler along the Henry Hudson Parkway. Earlier this month, Juarez, 52, of the Bronx was arrested for the death of his cousin, four-year-old Anjelica Castillo. The notorious case, which had captured public attention two decades ago, remains high-profile. Michael Croce, Juarez’s defense attorney, described this case as “the New York’s folklore. For now.” In his twenty years of criminal defense, he says that he has yet to encounter a case with this much publicity. “To some,” Croce added, “This is an once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

Nonetheless, considering the number of reporters and cameramen present at court, the indictment process was surprisingly uneventful. Reporters and cameramen waited in the hallway outside Part F[1], the pre-indictment felony part on the second floor of the building. The energy level, however, was low and most of those present appeared indifferent.

Robert Cantwell, a cameraman for 24 years, started working for ABC News’ Investigative Unit 12 years ago. “Today’s what we called ‘Day of Air’ news, general assignment,” he explained. Although he remembered the case from 1991, he was 20 years old, he didn’t think much would happen today. 

Lori Bordonaro, Channel 4 reporter since 2001, said, “No, nothing really surprises you.” Her plan was to go in, listen to the decision, and then try to get an interview with the lawyer. Bordonaro said for court reporting like this, she always asks the defense lawyer three questions: “if his client has remorse, if his client is guilty, and what is the next legal step.”

Juarez did not show up at court and a judge ruled that he is due in court on Nov. 21. Immediately after the decision, reporters flocked outside to their equipment and waited for Croce. He came out a half hour later, and they descended upon him like vultures. Five reporters moved swiftly and knelt down before the tripods, opened their palm sized notebooks, and started taking notes. Cameras rolled and reporters shouted out questions, sometimes cutting each other off.

“Do you think he is guilty? Did he tell you?”

“Can you tell us anything about the case?”

“What are you privileged to tell us?”

Croce declined to comment on the case and repeated what was said in court. After awhile, about 15 minutes or so, the crowd dispersed.

Chris Gallo, courtroom officer for Part N – Felony Narcotic explained that the courtroom is nothing like “Law & Order,” but that during his 11 years as a courtroom officer, he has seen some disturbing cases that measured up to “Baby Hope.” Gallo brought up the recent ‘Secret’ Baby case, where 17-year-old mom, Tiona Rodriguez, was caught shoplifting with a dead fetus inside her shopping bag about a week ago. “There’s nothing in the penal law considering walking with a dead baby,” He exclaimed, his speech intonated with a heavy New York accent, “She got charged for shoplifting!” Another upsetting case happened about a year ago. A drug dealer, who according to Gallo, “Was obviously a piece of garbage,” sold crack out of his apartment. When business was slow, he would send his 14-year-old daughter to the street, “You know, like prostitution.” And if she didn’t come home with $1,000, he would call his friends and local customers to have sex with his daughter for $5 to $10 each. Gallo admitted that he “developed tough skin” for this job.

The criminal court can be emotionally demanding, and for those who work there, the belief that you are doing something good is as important as developing tough skin. Javier Damien, a defense attorney for 26 years, started practicing in the Legal Aid Society before he broke off to be on his own three years ago. “Do I feel burned out?” He asked rhetorically, and answered “No.” He loves his job. Most of his cases dealt with drugs or theft-related crimes, but he loves the challenge of fighting for an underdog.

As for Judge Richard Weinberg, who oversees Part N, he says that he practices humanitarianism in another way. I chatted with him during his courtroom break and he asserted that he “Has no agenda to be nice just to be nice,” and would not hesitate to put a person in jail if he killed or raped someone. But for people with drug problems, he prefers drug rehabilitation over incarceration. He argued that option would satisfy conservatives (it saves expense, incarceration costs about $157,000 per person each year), liberals (it gives the person a second chance) and judges (it protects public safety).

I asked him for a success story. “Well, there’s this black Muslim, well, he converted to Muslim,” Judge Weinberg began. The man was a drug dealer up in Harlem, he was arrested and Judge Weinberg offered him court monitored treatment. He got better and would come and work as a volunteer at court. Each year, he sent Judge Weinberg a Christmas card. “A Christmas card,” Judge Weinberg roared with laughter, “From a black Muslim to his Jewish judge.”

[1] New York Court calls its courtrooms “Part” something, usually a number.

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