By: Gabriela Yareliz
An arraignment is the first time an arrested person presents him or herself to the court and to the judge. It’s where the defendant hears the charges against him or her. People sometimes get bail, some walk out of the court, while others are taken back to their cells by court police.
One early morning this summer, I showed up to the New York Criminal Court to watch arraignments. The court room works like an assembly line. Yet, at the same time, there is a lot going on in the room. Defense attorneys are consulting in one corner (usually from Legal Aid). In another corner, some court reporters are telling the Assistant District Attorneys to stop mumbling, and antsy defendants are sitting handcuffed in an opposite corner. In the crowd around me, are other defendants in police custody and family members of those being arraigned.
When the person is called up, the police takes a very close up photo of the defendant, and the defense attorney appears. After a while of sitting there, my back felt stiff. I would shift in my spot on the hard wooden bench (that resembled a church pew, minus the cushion). I could hear some whispers; I could see the police greeting officers who were just joining the team for the day; and I could see the judge, focused on what was being said.
In some cases, the defense attorney would make reference to the family members sitting around me, and to the “close ties to the community” the defendant had. It was sad when the defendant would get sent back, and he (all of them were male that day) would look back into the crowd, eyes searching until his eyes met with his wife or loved one. One mistake can cost you a lot.
The interesting reactions and expressions were of the ones released.
“Free to go.” The court police would echo, and the attorney would tell the defendant his right to appeal. One particular defense attorney was amusing to watch. He would take the defendants who were released to the back by the bar gate door and whip out a metro card from his front breast pocket. He would pat the defendant on the back and encourage him to be a good citizen, and then, the attorney would give him the metro card. “Free to go.” He’d often echo.
I was reminded of how many times we are trapped by our mistakes, our failures, our shortcomings, our character flaws, but through Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s forgiveness, we can leave our burdens and failures and start again. When God forgives us, He tells us to walk in righteousness with His help (encouragement), He offers us His strength out of grace (our very own metro card to help us get home), and He tells us we are free to go.
Now, what person in his or her right mind stands and asks to be handcuffed and taken back to a cell when freedom is offered?
I guess it’s up to each of us to answer that question.