(Hugh in his office after picking flowers for me. Pottery by Joe Bennion. )
Today, Hugh is deliberating the verdict of a case in which two parents are accused of starving their five adopted children. The oldest of the adopted children was so malnourished, that by the age of 13, he only weighed 50 pounds. He was rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment by an alarmed doctor during an office visit, and taken from the home by CPS with his four sisters shortly thereafter.
This trial is a bench trial. In its most basic terms, this means that instead of a jury deciding the verdict, the judge becomes the sole “trier of fact” and makes the final decision. Bench trials like these are rigorous, and require a great deal of focus and sustained attention. Often they are chosen because the defendant decides a particular judge might be more lenient. Often they are chosen because of the emotional nature of the evidence against them that might unduly sway a jury to a harsher conviction. I don’t know why this couple chose a bench trial, but they did, and Hugh is now taking two and a half days to deliberate their fate.
Last week after a meeting in town, I decided to stop at the courthouse and sit in the gallery to hear the afternoon testimony. On my way up the elevator, I realized that the mother/defendant was riding up with me. She wore the same pink sweater I’d seen her wear in newspaper reports the day before, and she didn’t smile.
The upper level of the courtroom swarmed with bystanders, newspaper and tv reporters, attorneys, social workers, and family members, all buzzing about the case. Noticing that it was high noon and the case had rested for lunch, I texted Hugh and asked him to let me in the private entrance to his office as I wanted to give him a hug. He did so.
“I really wanted to surprise you,” he said, finishing his salmon and green beans and offering me a bite.
“What?” I asked.
“I was on my way out to pick you some Sweet Peas, those flowers that you love.”
“Are you serious?” I said. “You have a very short break and you’re going out in your suit and tie to pick flowers for me?”
“Of course I am. It’s the perfect way to take a break and get refreshed before I go back in.”
I finished the rest of his salmon and beans he insisted upon me having, and we went out next to the river together to pick a bouquet of flowers. When we got back to the office, I took a photo of him. He then kissed me goodbye, sat down at his desk, and began poring over papers.
People sometimes think judges don’t have a hard job, but I’m here to tell you that they do. My husband often stays at work until midnight making sure he’s looked over the evidence of every case, big and small. He believes it is his duty to do so and I agree with him. Two nights ago, he was so exhausted from work, that he fell asleep on the sofa still wearing his button down shirt, tie, slacks, and shoes, and didn’t wake up until the morning.
I’m relieved the case is almost over so he can rest and we can discuss it. I don’t know how other spouses of judges handle it, but I will not express an opinion on a case until it is decided. I won’t tell him what’s in the newspaper, or what anyone is saying about it. I won’t ask leading questions. It’s the only fair and right way to handle it, and he agrees. I’m praying for him that he will make the wisest decision based on the facts presented in this case. And when it’s done, I am setting a beautiful table with fresh Sweet Peas, sending love and healing to every single person involved in this case, and then serving Hugh his favorite dinner.