Until 2017, I’ve only had to appear in court once. It was for a traffic ticket, and it wasn’t one I could just pay the fine and be done, I had to appear. I had a little bit of anxiety when I arrived, but only because I knew that the ticket I was there for (driving without insurance) could have meant jail time and/or a huge fine that I couldn’t afford.
I arrived and crammed myself into a tiny elevator with six other people, all headed to the third floor. I waited my turn to speak to the prosecutor; we made a plea deal. I sat in the courtroom until it was my turn to be admonished by the judge for my poor choices. I entered my plea, she let me off with a small fine, and I was sent downstairs to cash out.
It was all fairly simple, and a day I haven’t thought about until today.
Showing up at court when you’ve been the victim of a crime is a completely different story.
I arrived at the Jefferson County Courthouse, known in Denver as the Taj Mahal because it is a huge six or seven story building with a round atrium at the center and two arms stretching to either side of it. It also appears to have this pinkish hue when the sun hits it just right. You wouldn’t know looking at it, that a structure so beautiful would be the place where I would experience the most pain.
I walked up with a feeling of anticipation. You know, the kind that you have before a job interview that you’re really excited about, but you’re not sure if you’ll be impressive enough to get? I have butterflies in my stomach, but I feel confident. I have my favorite boots on and I walk through those front doors fully expecting a positive outcome for the day.
I had been in this building twice before—once to procure property records from the building department and once to ask the sheriff to serve legal papers on the father of my child. Both of those departments are in the wing to the left of the entrance, beyond the coffee shop and up a couple floors.
To the right, a pair of metal detectors secure the entrance to the other hall, the one that all of the court proceedings in the county take place in. I set my bag on the conveyor belt and passed to the other side. The detector beeps and the officer stops me to wand me down. “It’s probably my boots,” I laugh. They have a lot of buckles, of course it’s them. He makes me remove my boots to run through the x-ray machine and go through the metal detector again. It was the boots. “They sure look dangerous,” he jokes.
The first officer that responded to the call after the incident is going through the adjacent metal detector. “I know you! I bet you’re here for me!” I smile. He doesn’t return my smile. He didn’t when I made the same joke three months prior. We both turned to walk down the same hall. I stopped and feigned adjusting my boot to let him get ahead so we didn’t have to walk together awkwardly.
The hallway was lined on one side with windows. It was bright and cheery. You could see into the courtyard as people waited anxiously or nervously smoked. The wood paneling on the opposite wall shone in the sunlight. Dockets were posted along the wall. I glanced at them. Not mine.
I arrived at the victims’ advocate office, which was unsuspectingly tucked in between two courtrooms. I caught the eye of the second officer that responded on the day of the incident. She smiled when she recognized me. I immediately felt better. I announced myself and an admin ushered me into a waiting room. It had ugly chairs and ugly carpet and was sadder than a doctor’s office waiting room. The admin brought me a cup of coffee that would make gas station coffee feel like gourmet.
I waited impatiently, not sure if I should pick up a magazine to read or journal. I’d wished I had thought to bring a book. My advocate, Linda, appeared in the doorway and motioned with me to follow her. We walked back down the bright hallway to the elevator bank and ascended to the floor our courtroom was on. We walked down another hallway that had windows all on one side like the first, but it wasn’t nearly as bright and cheery. She asked if I would prefer to sit in the courtroom or in the conference room adjacent to it. She told me that it could be a while before our case was up, and she didn’t like to make victims face their perpetrators if they don’t feel comfortable.
I hadn’t seen the face of the man who had hurt my child since the night I had slammed the door in it two weeks prior to the incident. I was in no hurry to look him in the face. I chose to sit in the conference room. It was a small room, cluttered with stacks of forms. There were so many filing cabinets lining one wall that it made the room feel even more cramped. My advocate popped in and out while I sat and journaled she told me it would be a while. The longer I waited, the more sick I felt. I wasn’t sure if I could will myself into the courtroom at all.
The DA came in to talk to me about our options and to hear a little more about the case. She was prepared to offer a plea deal. I just hoped he would take it. When it was time, my advocate brought me into the courtroom and we sat a few rows behind the father of my child. I liked that he didn’t notice me. The DA whispered to his attorney, a man I would come to loathe, and she pulled me back into the conference room.
“They are going to ask for a continuation,” she told me. “They are claiming they have new discovery.”
“What new discovery could they possibly have?” My boots were no longer holding me up. I got flushed and nauseous and I had to sit down.
“I have no idea. But this means we have to continue. You never know, it could help our case.” She made an attempt to be encouraging, but I wanted to get out of there. I knew that I could leave at any time and it wouldn’t matter, but I knew it was better for us if I stayed.
We went back into the courtroom and waited some more. My advocate held my hand because I could not stop shaking. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want him to see it. I was furious. I was scared. I was heartbroken.
As he stood before the judge and was giving the continuation he asked for, I took the deepest breath I could muster and put on a neutral face. As he turned to walk out of the courtroom, he locked his eyes with mine. As my heart raced inside my chest, I didn’t dare blink. He needed to know that he didn’t scare me, and that I would fight every step of the way.
I walked into the building that morning for justice. I expected that I would come and go the same way that I did when I dealt with my traffic ticket. I left without an ounce of relief. I did not know that building would change me forever.