Judge Franco reveals her liberal heart…. no jail time for KC Plant Protesters (except for a 3 hr bit for…)
By Frank Cordaro – DMCW
Something happened in the Kansas City Municipal Court that doesn’t happen very often. A Judge revealed her true self to the court and Judge Franco is a liberal. This came as a surprise to most of us. The last time we appeared in Judge Franco’s court she was rude and mean, showing no interest in the cause that brought us to her court, not letting any of the Nuke Plant Protesters have a chance to speak and not even allowing some of us a chance to tell her we had no intention of paying the fines or court cost she laid on us after our pleas of guilty.
So, when 25 of us co-defendants showed up in court this past Tuesday July 19, with friends and supporters to answer to trespass charges from our May 2nd witness at the new KC Nuke Weapons Parts Plant, we were pleasantly surprised. The majority of Judge Franco’s afternoon docket was made up of the 25 protesters, with a few “regular”’ defendants interspersed in between. When the judge took the bench, she started hearing cases individually. Throughout most of the early proceedings Judge Franco’s voice could hardly be heard, even by the individual defendants standing in front of her.
As more and more protesters came before Judge Franco, it became clear that she was not going to send anyone to jail. She allowed individual defendants, who pled guilty, the option of community service instead of the $500 fine, ten day suspended jail and two year probation recommended by the prosecutor. Those who pled “not guilty” were given a court date in late September. She made no distinction between first time offenders and those who had been arrested before.
When Nick Pickrell, a repeat offender went before the Judge, he told her of his work at the Cherith Brook CW in KC and how he could not afford to pay the fine or do community service because his life was one of community service. Nick told her he would prefer to do jail time instead. The judge complied and gave him a two day jail sentence. Since Nick had done an overnight in lock up the day we were all arrested, they cut him lose three hours after court.
The last group of protesters who came before the judge were the ones representing themselves. Among these was Megan Felt from the Des Moines CW. It was with Megan that the judge really started to show her true sympathies.
Megan had spent the whole time in the court room trying to read the judge on a spiritual level. All she could feel from the judge was a woman who was in a great deal of pain. When she stood before Judge Franco, representing herself, she tried to start a conversation about the reasons that she and the other protesters were there in the first place. Megan told the judge she lived and worked at a CW and really could not afford the fine. The judge shared that she too had concerns about nuclear weapons and the new parts plant being built. She cut Megan’s fine to $100 plus
Then came Steve Jacobs from the Columbia, MO CW. He pled guilty, with the stipulation that he would be allowed to make a statement before he was sentenced. It was at this time we learned that, in this KC Municipal Court, only defendants facing a possible jail sentence had the right to speak before sentencing. Steve is a multiple offender and was one of the five people who had active warrants out on him on May 2nd when we were arrested. This made him a candidate for jail time. So the judge allowed Steve to speak. He gave a prepared statement entitled, “YOUR HONOR: I AM GUILTY OF THIS” (See text of Steve’s statement below.)
After Steve read his statement, the whole court room erupted with applause. The bailiff shouted out that there was no clapping allowed in the court and the room fell silent. The judge gave Steve the $500 fine, 10 days suspended sentence and two years’ probation – the same sentence the prosecutor recommended for first time offenders. Steve was escorted out of the court room and sent to the clerk of courts office.
I was the last person to appear before Judge Franco. Representing myself, I told her that I wanted to plead guilty as long as I was allowed to speak before sentencing. She reminded me that only defendants who could be sent to jail had a right to speak. She took a look at the computer before her and then told me that I qualified.
I told the judge that that was at least one good thing about the possibility of being sent to jail in her court. Then she reminded me that it did not necessarily mean that I would be sentenced to jail. And I responded, “I know and I had great hopes that what I say will persuade you not to send me to jail.” (Unlike Steve Jacobs and Ed Bloomer, who had the same standing warrants as I for failure to pay previous fines and court cost at the time of the May 2nd action, I was given only 60 days to pay the fines and court cost, they were given 90 days. This meant I had an active warrant out for my arrest and could have been arrested at any time during the proceedings.) The judge smiled and nodded for me to proceed.
I began by telling the judge that I agreed with everything that Steve Jacobs had said in his previous statement. I, too, was not going to pay any fines or do any community service. Then I told her, “There is yet another reason I am not going to pay any fine or court cost levied against me. It has to do with the system, the Justice System.”
I told the judge, “This is not personally directed at you judge, but at the whole justice system.”
“We CWers are known for doing the Works of Mercy in our houses of hospitality; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner and housing the homeless. For our guests, doing jail time is as common as the common cold. It’s a fact of life in the lives of the poor and people of color whom we serve. The single most common reason for them being in jail is their lack of money.”
“They say you get the justice you can afford in this country. If you have a million dollars, you’ll get a million dollars’ worth of justice and if you’ve got two cents, you’ll get two cents worth. It’s even worse for the poor because the system nickels and dimes those to death with all the court costs, fees and fines levied against them. In some cities like Des Moines, they even get charged jail fees at $48 a day! Some will never get out of debt. When I talked to one local KC attorney about representing us here in court today he said that this Municipal Court was nothing more than a ‘collection agency’. Hardly a place where justice is served!”
“You know as well as I do, Judge, that the majority of the people locked up in your jail are poor and people of color and they are there primarily there because they don’t have enough money to get themselves out. So I am telling you -your honor, if you sentence me to jail today, every day will be a privileged day in which I can share the plight of the poor, whom we serve at our Catholic Workers”. The court room was spontaniously filled with applause but just as quickly silenced by the court bailiff.
Now it was Judge Franco’s turn to talk. She leaned across the bench and her voice carried all the way to the back of the court room. She said that, before she was a judge, she was a defense lawyer for 25 years and often defended the same kind of people we serve at our CWers. She said she knew well the demographics of the KC jail and did not disagree with me on these facts.
Judge Franco was especially aware of the role of mental health in the criminal justice system saying, “Our county jails are probably the biggest mental health facilities in this county.” She told us that she became a judge in hopes of being able to better the plight of the poor and the mentally ill. She listed a number of programs that she help get started that served the needs of indigent inmates, homeless Vets and the mentally ill. She told us that, as a judge, she has lobbied at the State level not to prevent cutting mental health care. She said, “It was the dumbest thing the state legislators ever did when they cut mental health funds.”
When she was done speaking the court room erupted in applause again. And the court bailiff tried to silence the room. When the court room returned to silence, Judge Franco gave me the same sentence she gave Steve Jacobs and Ed Bloomer – a $500 fine plus court cost, to be paid within 90 days. Then Judge Franco smiled and said, “But I’m sure that you’ll eventually be found in contempt of court.”
I told the Judge, “I already am.”
And she said, “I know.”
Judge Franco revealed her true self to us in the court that day and she is a liberal. I say this in the best of sense of the word. I say this because, left to my own upbringing, history and temperament, I too would be a liberal if it were not for my radical reading of the scriptures, my life at the CWer and my encounter with the Berrigan brothers. We Faith based, radical Catholic Worker types have common cause with good people like Judge Franco and, when we can, we should celebrate our common concerns and values. That is what happen in court last Tuesday.
Still, I walked out of the KC Court House with an active warrant for my arrest still hanging over my head and in 90 days another one will be issued. Ed Bloomer and Steve Jacobs are soon to be in the same situation, along with better than a few of the folks who were sentenced with fines and court costs and will refuse to do so.
Another 25 folks will be heading back to court in KC in late September for another trial. And not all the judges in KC are liberals.
And the nuke weapons parts plant is still being built.
And it is going to take a lot more than a liberal approach to stop the continued building and maintaining of our nuclear weapons.
And it’s going to take a lot more than liberal programs to bring justice to the Justice System.
The one thing in our “radical tool box” that our liberal friends don’t seem to have or don’t want to use is our willingness to do nonviolent direct action with some measure of human equity and personal sacrifice on the line. And when such efforts bring us in conflict with our Justice System that mean being willing and ready to go to jail if necessary.
Therefore it is incumbent on us Faith based, radical Catholic Worker types to keep doing what we do best – nonviolent direct action.