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The Love Court

At the Compton Courthouse, the public defenders love the juries, the prosecutors love the challenge, and at least one judge calls it 'the greatest place in the world.'

November 21, 2004|Sara Catania | Sara Catania is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.

In most urban American settings, the Compton Courthouse would seem a modest structure. But here, rising 14 stories above the flats of South L.A.--a low-slung landscape of scrappy bungalows, storefront churches and off-brand retailers hawking fried turkey or discount electronics--it's a formidable presence. From a distance, the block of white concrete striped with black windows resembles an enormous cage, or a prison cell. It's a tempting target: Police at one point counted 55 bullet holes in the building's western facade. Closer in, graffiti appears on every markable surface, sprayed on the front steps, scraped into the aluminum elevator frames and etched into the windows.

Decades of courthouse lore perpetuate Compton's gangsta image: a murder in the parking lot, an attempted carjacking of an attorney a block away and the courtroom stabbings of two bailiffs by a defendant. Bulletproof windows were installed years ago, after a judge found a potshot lodged in the bathroom in his chambers. The courthouse handles all the crimes in South L.A.--including more killings a year than any other jurisdiction in California. At any given time there are between 40 and 50 murder cases "in the building." It is the largest of the 10 branch courthouses in Los Angeles County, and its nearly 800 workers may be the most punctual; get a parking spot in the underground employee lot and you're all but assured that you never have to venture outside. Stephen R. Kay, who runs the courthouse district attorney's office, calls the environment "siege-like" and compares it to the film "Fort Apache: The Bronx."

Yet the Compton Courthouse has another, less-celebrated reputation--one of tolerance, humor and humanity. In the midst of a hostile climate, perhaps in part because of it, a close camaraderie and sense of common purpose have flourished. The place has the feel of a small town, where hard work is respected and eccentricities are indulged, and it has become an assignment of choice among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Those who land positions here tend to stay, and those who leave often wind up coming back. A court reporter who trained at Compton when she was a student in the late 1970s returned after graduation and has been there ever since. One judge met his future wife at the courthouse when he was a criminal defense attorney and she was a courtroom clerk. They were married in a church he can see from the window in his chambers.

Lucy Howard, who has worked as a bailiff in Compton for more than 20 years, considers the courthouse a sanctuary, its workers ambassadors of righteousness. "You don't say it, but you tend to know that you're all on the same mission," she says. "It just touches you deep in your heart." Over the years, many a defendant has told her that Compton is known in the community as the "Love Court." "It's not like they're here for anything nice. It's not like it's a social visit," she says. "But they tell me, 'You go to Compton, you get love.' "

In the Compton Courthouse, the barriers between people that exist elsewhere seem to have been reconfigured into one enormous, invisible shield--with lawyers and judges, clerks and court reporters all together on the same side. Public defenders vie for Compton assignments because jurors here are more likely to be wary of the police and to sympathize with defendants. They love to tell the story of the colleague whose homeless client was charged with felony assault for allegedly pelting police officers with rocks. He concluded his closing argument with: "Wah, wah, wah." (His client was acquitted of the charge.) "If you've been through the rabbit hole the other way, you tend to have a different take on things," says Andy Thorpe, a longtime public defender. Prosecutors seek out Compton because a win here enhances their credibility. "I tell my trial lawyers if they can successfully prosecute a case in Compton," Kay says, "they can do it anywhere."

In the courtrooms, attorneys, bailiffs and judges banter about vacations, recipes and family woes, seemingly oblivious of their ever-present audience--the defendants, witnesses and family members waiting for cases to be called. As in any battle zone, working in a place where even murder can take on a surreal mundaneness creats a heightened familiarity and unselfconscious intimacy among colleagues. "We have an enormous number of violent offenders in here every day, an enormous number of people with mental illness," says Russell Griffith, who has worked as a public defender in Compton for 14 years. "It makes sense for all of us to pull together, and we do. You can't imagine what a difference it makes."

Stepping into an elevator on a recent morning, a sheriff's deputy greeted an attorney. As the doors slid shut, he said, softly, "I heard about your wife's miscarriage."

"Yeah," the attorney said.

The elevator lumbered upward.

"Mine too," the deputy said.

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