My Christmas Morning In A Courtroom

Dec 13, 2019

Once upon a time, many years ago, I spent Christmas morning in the arraignment courtroom of the Hamilton County Municipal Court.

No, wiseacres, I was not up on charges.

I was a newspaper reporter, an observer, a person being paid to watch a long line of sorrowful, pathetic and sometimes belligerent defendants parade by then-municipal court Judge Mark Painter.

They were there to enter their pleas and either be held on bond or released on their own recognizance. Nearly every one of them was represented by a lawyer for the public defender's office, and many of those overworked and under-appreciated lawyers had never even spoken to their clients; they were working off a police report and doing the best they could.

It was early on Christmas morning, 1982.

The proceedings were held in the old Alms & Doepke Building on Central Parkway, which, before the Hamilton County Justice Center was built three years later, was the home for municipal court arraignments.

I had come to the Enquirer about 10 weeks before Christmas 1982 – a big step up from my previous job at the Troy Daily News.

A big step in terms of my paycheck and the newspaper circulation, but a free-fall in terms of my seniority.

I was the junior person on the totem pole, the most recent hire in the local news section.

That meant I was nominated and elected by acclamation to work both Thanksgiving and Christmas, when we kept a skeleton-staff on hand to handle the news of the day.

I had seen this coming, and I didn't want to get some cheesy holiday assignment, so I went to work on finding my own story for Christmas.

Then I heard that Judge Painter was planning on holding arraignments for those arrested on Christmas Eve – a Friday – so that they did not have to sit around in a dank jail cell until the next regularly scheduled arraignment on Monday morning.

The session included arraignments for people who could not make bond and bond hearings for those charged with felonies. The vast majority of those to parade before the judge that Christmas morning were accused of non-violent crimes and were likely to be released on their own recognizance anyway.

Why keep them in the hoosegow through the holiday weekend?

Others had more serious crimes where the judge set a bond for their release. If they couldn't make bail, back to jail they went, holiday or no holiday.

That morning, as I sat in the courtroom, living rooms all over Cincinnati were littered with wrapping paper; kids were shouting over scoring touchdowns on their wish lists to Santa; toy dolls were crying; tiny race cars were crashing into baseboards and leaving scratches; and fathers were contemplating the meaning of an array of the ugliest necktie gifts in all of creation.

But, where I was stationed, the parade of public defenders and defendants in orange jailhouse jumpsuits shuffled to the bench and shuffled out a few minutes later.

The cases were pretty typical fare for municipal arraignment court.

There were skinny youth charged with selling drugs to undercover cops; black-eyed defendants who had been pinched stealing a pack of hot dogs from the neighborhood mom-and-pop store; drunken drivers from the night before who were clearly still hungover – more than a hundred cases in all.

Crime, it seems, would take no holiday.

"Merry Christmas," Painter told the 50 or so people in the gallery. "Obviously, I'm sure you would all rather be someplace else right now."

But they were there – defendants' families and friends, public defenders, court clerks, bailiffs, police officers and one lone journalist unlucky enough to draw the short straw of working on Christmas.

One of the first to come before the judge that Christmas morning was a 60-year-old man who gave his address as the Fort Washington Hotel downtown – in those days a notorious flophouse that, years later, was turned into luxury condos.

This fellow was accused of stealing two sweaters from a downtown store. His public defender stood at his side, telling Painter that his client was an alcoholic and was drunk at the time of the theft.

"This man has a previous conviction on a theft,'' said Assistant City Prosecutor Charlie Rubenstein, who later served as Cincinnati's city solicitor.

Reading from a file folder, Rubenstein said the previous incident "involved the theft of a dishwater… wait a minute, make that 'theft of Dutch Masters.'''

Not works of art by Dutch masters, but the cheap cigar Dutch Masters.

A hearing date was set and the man was released.

An Over-the-Rhine man accused of assaulting an 86-year-old woman didn't find Painter to be very receptive to the idea of letting him out of jail; the judge sentenced him to 180 days on additional misdemeanor charges.

Another Over-the-Rhine man pleaded with the judge not to release a neighborhood woman. She had been arrested by police on charges of carrying a concealed weapon (back in the days before you could do that legally with a permit) and aggravated menacing.

The person being menaced was the old man from Over-the-Rhine.

"I got a heart condition,'' he told the judge, as the accused woman glared at him, "and this woman has been threatening me. I can't take it no more."

Painter sent her back to jail, on a total bond of $30,000 on the two charges.

Next was a Mount Auburn man, in his late 30s, who stood accused of stealing used clothing from a store in Norwood.

The man fled from the store, Rubenstein told the judge, and was chased by a store employee.

When the store employee caught up with him, the Mount Auburn man beat him with a pair of jumper cables.

Because of the Mount Auburn man's history of not showing up for court appearances, Painter said he was sending him back to jail on $5,000 bond.

One after another, sheriff's deputies hauled the unfortunates into the courtroom and to the judge's bench. Some would stay in jail, others would go home with their families and have whatever kind of Christmas they could have under the circumstances.

More than 100 of them.

Painter must have known what he was doing.

He knew Christmas Eve was going to be neither a silent nor holy night for some of Cincinnati's citizens.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.