Friday, January 9, 2009

The Free Will of a Shackled Man

This afternoon I attended a hearing to obtain an injunction against somebody from removing a client's septic system. Talk about a messy situation!

Just prior to the judge reaching my case on the docket, he said he needed to take a plea from a defendant. In came a middle-aged black man, donning bright yellow coveralls, courtesy of Smith County. When he first walked in the courtroom I didn't see him. A sheriff's deputy walked in front him (one was behind him as well) and my view of the defendant was blocked. Though I couldn't see him, I could hear the clang-jangle-clang of his ankle-shackles as he approached the dock. He was seated beside his attorney, whose hair was unkempt and who had a frayed sportcoat and seemed rather insouciant about being there, and across from the prosecutor who had before him a stack of files each representing an offender.

The man was accused of driving while intoxicated. He had two prior convictions, meaning he now faced a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 10 if convicted. He had been tried once, which resulted in a hung jury---a rarity in Smith County.

I reckon the DA threatened to ask for the maximum sentence of the man had to be tried again, so he was taking a plea bargain for the minimum 2 years. Have you ever seen a man stand before a judge and admit to wrongdoing in exchange for spending less time in a cage than he otherwise would? It's surreal, and strikingly informal. Well, perhaps not informal, but the process isn't as solemn as one would like.

The judge read the charge aloud, including and especially the part about the two prior convictions. The judge asked the defendant if he was entering his plea because he was truly guilty, and whether he understood he was waiving his right to appeal the case and, of course, waiving his right to trial by jury, etc.

There's no telling how many times the judge had read these exact words to countless other defendants. He blew through it so fast that he sounded like the guy who used to do the Micromachine commercials when Trey, Matt, and I were kids. After zooming through each paragraph, the judge would ask this question, "Did you sign this of your own free will, without coercion?"

Think about this. There's a man in shackles, with an underpaid and probably underskilled court-appointed attorney, threatened with spending 10 years in a cage, and is required to swear to the fact that he is signing his plea of his own free will and without coercion.

Forget for one moment the religious proscription against oaths. Forget, too, about the value of having a criminal swear to something. The idea that a threatened man in shackles has a free will, and is acting uncoerced is laughable. And yet, that's the law.

I'm tempted to go on and on about this, dialectically explicating free will and what it means to be coerced. I'll abstain, however, because that can be done much better by others on this site, and let the scene speak for itself.

1 comment:

Hal Brunson said...


I'll never forget the first time I saw someone in handcuffs and footshackles, Maximum Security Unit, Rusk State Mental Hospital; my heart sank.

In my opinion, the most powerful salvation story in the NT is that of the Gadarene Maniac, one so desperately bound by spiritual chains that physical chains could not hold him.

Thank God for a chain-breaking Savior.