One jail officer clipped his fingernails in open court. A judge ate yogurt and granola while on the bench. The volunteers of CourtWatch documented these and other aspects of trials and other court proceedings. Their mission: to provide feedback and "to highlight gaps in the system."
The balding man in a gray suit took the stand on a recent Monday and admitted he enjoyed wearing women’s swimsuits under his clothes and trolling Federal Way thrift stores for “treasures.” But he insisted he wasn’t sexually attracted to little girls.
“I am not a child molester,” Peter Carr said during his trial on charges of first-degree child molestation and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.
Two young women — both college students with side jobs — sat in the courtroom gallery at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent and took notes on yellow clipboards.
“He wasn’t credible,” said one, 21-year-old Amy Cleary, during a break. The deputy prosecutor, she said, “is just destroying him” on cross-examination.
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Cleary and Molly Horak are among a core group of 20 volunteers who sit in on trials and other civil- and criminal-court hearings involving defendants accused of sex crimes or child abuse. They take notes on the proceedings as well as the courtroom atmosphere, interactions between court staff, and the demeanor of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, jail officers and other courtroom personnel.
Their observations are sent to Laura Jones, an attorney who manages CourtWatch, a court-monitoring program launched in 2010 by the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. The Renton-based agency, founded in 1976, provides counseling and assigns advocates to sexual-assault victims as cases against alleged perpetrators make their way through the criminal-justice system.
The point of CourtWatch — the state’s only court-monitoring program focused exclusively on sexual-assault and child-abuse cases — is to increase public understanding of the courts, which it does by sending volunteers into court and publicizing their findings.
Other goals of the program include improving transparency and accessibility to justice, providing feedback to judges and influencing policy decisions that affect victims of sex crimes, Jones said.
Since October 2010, CourtWatch volunteers have observed more than 450 cases in King County Superior Court, at both the downtown Seattle courthouse and the courthouse in Kent, according to Jones. Nineteen judges — or roughly 40 percent of the county’s Superior Court bench — have signed up to receive feedback based on volunteers’ observations, she said.
Judge Regina Cahan said it was an easy decision to sign up with CourtWatch because as a judge, “it’s hard to get independent, objective feedback.” While aware that comments are being provided by a victims advocacy group, she said she’d accept feedback from a defense organization if it were offered, too.
“You always want to do the best you can,” said Cahan, a Superior Court judge since 2008 who so far has received only one set of volunteer comments — they were positive — through the CourtWatch program. “What I would be sensitive to is if people felt I wasn’t treating them respectfully and fairly — and I’d want to know that from all sides.”
The good, not-so-good
In a CourtWatch report released this week, snippets from volunteers’ notes highlight the good as well as the not-so-good and even the borderline disgusting. Names aren’t used in the report, which commends a couple of judges for their deliberate, respectful conduct and words of encouragement; criticizes another judge, who appeared bored and may have drifted in and out of sleep during a trial; and calls out a jail officer who “clipped his fingernails” during a sentencing.
One volunteer wrote: “Even when I’ve disagreed with his decisions, the judge does a good job of putting his reasoning on the record, stating very clearly why he made a certain decision.”
Jones said research “to highlight gaps in the system” is another key component of the court-monitoring program. She recently began compiling offender histories to document what she sees as unjust outcomes and is tracking data on what she sees as inconsistencies in the way Sexual Assault Protection Orders (SAPOs) are issued.
One troubling case
In the recent CourtWatch report, Jones chronicled the criminal history of one defendant who, despite his victims’ objections, was allowed to receive sex-offender treatment in the community instead of serving prison time for repeatedly raping and sodomizing his girlfriend’s 7-year-old granddaughter in 2008.
The alternative sentencing, or Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative (SSOSA), is meant to encourage family reunification typically following incidents of incest, so long as the victim didn’t suffer substantial bodily harm and the offender is considered amenable to treatment.
“Technically, he fits the criteria but it’s maddening it was considered at all,” Jones said of the sentencing alternative, noting the man had previously been convicted of sexually abusing two girls in the early 1990s and served eight years in prison before the convictions were overturned. As part of his plea deal in the 2008 case, he pleaded guilty to both the earlier crimes and crimes involving the 7-year-old and was ordered to participate in sex-offender treatment — on his own dime — for five years. Prosecutors asked the judge to reconsider his decision, but that request was denied.
The defendant’s “entire criminal past raised questions about the information decision-makers had (about him) and the loopholes in the law,” Jones said. ” Did the Legislature anticipate that somebody pleading guilty to two cases would be eligible for a SSOSA? Is this really what they had envisioned?”
The CourtWatch report concluded that the sentencing alternative in the case “does seem too lenient in light of the extent and circumstances of the offenses.”
“Varies from judge to judge”
Another area where Jones sees inconsistencies between legislative intent and real-world implementation is in the issuance of Sexual Assault Protection Orders.
Before 2006, victims of sexual assault could get a domestic-violence protection order against a romantic partner or a household member, or they could seek an anti-harassment order, but only if they could show a pattern of unwanted sexual contact, Jones said.
The SAPOs, a third option, were created to address cases that didn’t meet the criteria for domestic-violence or anti-harassment protection orders. SAPOs can be issued even if criminal charges have not been filed, a case is still under investigation, or an incident was never reported to police.
Temporary orders elapse after two weeks, and both parties must show up to court for a judge to decide whether to issue a permanent order — but one problem that has repeatedly come up is that cases often get dismissed if a respondent, who must be served court paperwork in person, can’t be located after repeated attempts, she said.
Another issue documented by CourtWatch volunteers is the wide range of judges’ decisions in such cases, Jones said. Last year, 28 judges and three pro tem judges heard a combined 70 petitions for SAPOs.
“It really varies from judge to judge,” said Jones, who found, for instance, that if a respondent was represented by an attorney but a petitioner was not, the judge typically denied the request for a SAPO. ” There were over 30 people making decisions in these cases. Some judges were a lot more informal” with the parties being called before the bench, while other judges conducted “full-blown trials,” even though the Legislature only required judges to base decisions on “a preponderance of the evidence,” she said.
A hungry judge
As Horak and Cleary waited for the recent Carr trial to resume, they discussed their experiences as CourtWatch volunteers.
Attending criminal trials and other proceedings can be sad and infuriating, said Horak, a 24-year-old nanny who is working on her master’s degree in social work. She recalled one trial in which a mother testified on behalf of her husband, who was later convicted of sexually abusing his stepchildren.
“That was hard to see, a mom kind of defending the perpetrator. You could tell the prosecutor was visibly frustrated,” Horak said.
Cleary, a University of Washington sociology and communications major who works at a local pizza joint, said that during one sentencing she attended the judge ate yogurt and granola while on the bench.
“She said, ‘If I’m not hungry, I’ll be more fair,’ and I just thought that was really inappropriate,” Cleary said.
An attentive judge
As Carr took the stand, Horak and Cleary got to work on their notes, both commenting on the judge’s demeanor — attentive and engaged — and on Carr’s testimony — deliberately evasive and unreliable.
Two days later, the jury convicted Carr, an airport parking-lot attendant, of first-degree child molestation for sexually touching an 8-year-old girl at a Federal Way thrift store in June and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes for sexual comments he made to a 9-year-old girl at a different thrift store later that month.
Prosecutors are seeking a five-year prison term when Carr, 41, is sentenced May 4.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com