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 firstname.lastname@example.org.