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Judges learn it's human to have feelings on bench

By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press Published: February 22, 2013
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Frustration, Fowlkes said, is what keeps popping up. Roughly 85 percent of the criminal defendants who come before him are young black males, and the details vary little, he said.

By and large, they lack education and skills, having dropped out of school at an early age. Often, they are part of a drug or gang culture, and they pass through the courtroom seemingly headed for life as a career criminal, he said.

“There is a wider societal problem that is continuously brought to me for some type of solution, and courts are not the place for it,” Fowlkes said.

The first time Maroney did this sort of training session, last October in front more than 200 judges, she was surprised by how eager judges were to talk about emotions on the bench and share experiences from their somewhat isolated professional lives. “I worried that people would find it touchy-feely or some kind of therapy session, which it's not at all. I think it's important to give judges some breathing room,” she said.

What she is trying to do is to adapt research on human emotion for use in the courtroom.

“The cultural message is that judges are supposed to be poker-faced. Well, not always,” she said.

The Miami incident is useful to Maroney's work because it illustrates a debate over when “judicial anger can serve an important teaching function — showing that defendant the gravity of her situation, demanding appropriate respect for authority — and when it might instead reflect intemperance and, stated bluntly, a power trip,” she said.

Another example Maroney is working into her presentation is the January sentencing of a serial killer by Justice Bonnie Wittner in New York State Supreme Court, the state's trial court.

“She cried while she was sentencing him. It was unusual enough that it got reported, but it got reported in a very non-judgmental way. It was extremely meaningful to the victims' families. It meant she cared. This is not a judge who is walled off and has lost all touch with humanity.”

For Fowlkes, the moment that really got to him occurred during a murder trial in state court, before a jury rendered its verdict. The victim was a 4-year-old girl who was beaten to death. Her mother's boyfriend was on trial.

Prosecutors showed jurors the girl's picture. Her body was lying on a table in the medical examiner's office, just before the autopsy.

“It was as if she was just lying there asleep. You couldn't see any bruises. I don't know why that photo affected me the way it did,” Fowlkes said.

He couldn't let his emotions show. “It's something I had to deal with inside,” he said. “You just have to find a way of handling it so it does not adversely affect others.”


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