Northeast Times

Reporters watch and wait for priest verdict

James Ward, Jim Sper­ing, and Ed Specht with the CBS News await for Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn and Priest James Bren­nan in front of the court­house on Tues­day, June 12, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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Make no mis­take about it, there’s some ser­i­ous busi­ness go­ing on in­side Courtroom 304 in Phil­adelphia’s Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter.

You can pick that up be­fore you even set foot in the room. You’ve already gone through se­cur­ity in the lobby of the build­ing — which al­ways, al­ways, in­volves tak­ing your belt off, along with put­ting the usu­al coins, keys and whatever in the little bas­ket. Then through the met­al de­tect­or and maybe a wand if you still set the alarm off.

But you’re only halfway there if you want to go to 304, where the widely watched Cath­ol­ic Church priest sex ab­use case is go­ing on.

You turn in­to the cor­ridor on the third floor, to be greeted by a large sign that makes it clear there will be ab­so­lutely no elec­tron­ic devices in the courtroom. That in­cludes your cell phone, even if it’s turned off.

Re­port­ers cov­er­ing the case have de­veloped all kinds of schemes for people out­side the courtroom to hold our phones for us, many tak­ing ad­vant­age of the kind nature of a col­lege in­tern for a loc­al TV sta­tion. She sits on the hard ter­razzo floor in the hall­way, of­ten with a col­lec­tion of six to eight cell phones be­side her. She’ll even plug in a char­ger if you ask.

Then you have to go through an­oth­er met­al de­tect­or, over­seen by a usu­ally smil­ing deputy sher­iff. And yes, dump your change and keys in the bas­ket, again, even though you just did that down­stairs.

Room 304 is big­ger than most in the build­ing — it can ac­com­mod­ate 181 spec­tat­ors, and many days every seat is filled.

It’s ser­i­ous stuff, go­ing on here. People could end up in jail. Grown men who give their ac­counts of be­ing mo­les­ted by priests cry on the wit­ness stand. Law­yers with their “A” games on ply their trades, look­ing for a con­ces­sion from this wit­ness or that.

The jur­ors, who sat through 11 weeks of the tri­al, paid close at­ten­tion dur­ing the testi­mony. Then as now, dur­ing de­lib­er­a­tions, they hardly ever give away what they’re think­ing by way of a fa­cial ex­pres­sion.

And all of that is over­seen by Com­mon Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, who ab­so­lutely nev­er gives away what she’s think­ing. You have a sense, as a spec­tat­or, that you need to be­have in her courtroom, that this is a judge who will brook no non­sense.

Sarmina has made things par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult, too, for re­port­ers be­cause of a strict gag or­der she has is­sued, for­bid­ding law­yers and wit­nesses from talk­ing with any­one. If you’re a per­son who makes a liv­ing with a pad and a pen, you can’t get so much as the spelling of a name from some par­ti­cipants, you can’t ask for simple ex­plan­a­tions of the sig­ni­fic­ance of testi­mony, and worst of all, you can’t bal­ance your story by get­ting com­ments from the oth­er side.

Sarmina’s de­mean­or is as ser­i­ous as the charges of a cov­er-up against Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn, the former sec­ret­ary for clergy for the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia, and the Rev. James Bren­nan, who is charged with the at­temp­ted rape of a 14-year-old boy.

From her perch, she can see everything — the 10 law­yers who sit at the tables be­fore her, four pro­sec­utors, four rep­res­ent­ing Lynn, and two bat­tling for Bren­nan — as well as a seat­ing area that in­cludes any­where from six to 20 journ­al­ists, de­pend­ing on the day, some reg­u­lar cit­izens, re­l­at­ives and friends of Lynn’s, and very of­ten folks from or­gan­iz­a­tions that fight for the rights of ab­used chil­dren.

Over­all, this is not a laugh-a-minute scene. It’s ser­i­ous stuff. Still, after three months in the same courtroom, hu­mor some­times creeps in on little feet.

Sarmina her­self oc­ca­sion­ally makes a small joke, which is all the more hu­mor­ous be­cause it’s so un­ex­pec­ted.

On one day dur­ing jury de­lib­er­a­tions, for in­stance, she hand wrote a note on what she was pro­pos­ing to tell the jur­ors in an­swer to a ques­tion they had asked. The jur­ors at that mo­ment were off in a sep­ar­ate room try­ing to de­cide the guilt or in­no­cence of Lynn and Bren­nan.

She handed the pa­per down to a court aide, who passed it along to one at­tor­ney after an­oth­er.

“Nice pen­man­ship, your hon­or,” quipped de­fense at­tor­ney Jeff Lindy, who rep­res­ents Lynn.

She smiled, just a little smile.

“Cath­ol­ic school,” she said.

The case it­self was some­times gut wrench­ing, as when the 14-year-old who main­tains that Bren­nan mo­les­ted him, test­i­fied in a some­times tear­ful, emo­tion­al way.

His ac­count was so graph­ic that your stom­ach turned. He’s a grown man now, with a heap of prob­lems in his life, in­clud­ing what he test­i­fied were his memor­ies.

The case was also some­times pain­ful on an­oth­er front — the te­di­um of a po­lice de­tect­ive read­ing page, after page, after page of doc­u­ments that sur­faced in the case.

And then, of course, the case was giv­en to the jur­ors on June 1, and the rest of us were left to won­der what they might be think­ing.

What has evolved after the jury star­ted its de­lib­er­a­tions was kind of a wan­der­ing tribe of journ­al­ists, all fear­ful of get­ting too far from the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter. Sarmina only gives 15 minutes no­tice to law­yers if the jury has a ques­tion, of which it has had many. It’s day after day of wait­ing, wait­ing, wait­ing, and guess­ing what might be go­ing through the minds of the jur­ors.

On the day of the ver­dict, the judge has prom­ised a one-hour no­tice. Still, nobody wants to get too far away.

The wait has been great for the cof­fee shop in the Court­yard by Mar­ri­ott across Fil­bert Street. It’s a prime loc­a­tion be­cause you can see the front door of the justice cen­ter and get a clear view of when law­yers in the case are head­ing in­to the build­ing.

Pho­to­graph­ers and TV cam­era crews have bon­ded in a small tribe at the corner of 13th and Fil­bert streets, wait­ing mostly for Lynn to enter or leave, the build­ing.

There are re­port­ers from Phil­adelphia, of course, but many na­tion­al out­lets as well.

Con­ver­sa­tion tends to fo­cus on our best guesses about what the latest jury ques­tion por­tends, how long the jury might be out, wheth­er a re­quest by the jury for a day off is simply a per­son­al schedul­ing is­sue, or wheth­er they’re try­ing to let things cool off.

If we’re not in the Mar­ri­ott, we tend to gath­er in or near the courtroom, which is empty but for a few court aides. The air con­di­tion­ing is good there, and you know for a fact you won’t miss a big break in the story if you’re there.

The oth­er day, Bren­nan’s law­yer, Wil­li­am Bren­nan — he likes to re­mind every­one that he’s now known as “no re­la­tion” — was sit­ting in the courtroom, on a spec­tat­or bench en­gaged in a fierce battle.

This one had noth­ing to do with the case, though. He and long-time TV re­port­er Ver­non Odom were du­el­ing over who knew more trivia about “The God­fath­er” film.

Even to a God­fath­er fan who was watch­ing, it was im­press­ive. Bren­nan at one stage was pushed to the wall, and used his cell phone to call a pal who knew more than he about the movie, to get a ques­tion to stump Odom.

Later that af­ter­noon, Sarmina con­vened the court, merely to dis­miss the jury for the day.

After the jury filed out, and Bren­nan couldn’t res­ist leav­ing the at­tor­ney area to re­sume his God­fath­er joust with Odom.

Sarmina looked down sternly, re­mind­ing Bren­nan, “There’s still a gag or­der, Mr. Bren­nan.”

“I’ve known him for 25 years,” Bren­nan re­spon­ded. “We’re talk­ing about God­fath­er trivia.”

Even a ser­i­ous courtroom has its mo­ments.

Dave Warner is the Phil­adelphia cor­res­pond­ent for Re­u­ters. He can be reached at 267-577-2127 or ed­i­t­ex­press@ve­r­i­zon.net.

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You can reach at dwarner@bsmphilly.com.

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