There are no happy stories in this place, at least not for me.
Sure, there are weddings. Weddings are happy. Brides are pretty, grooms dashing. I don’t cover weddings. Weddings don’t make the front page and they don’t sell newspapers, unless they’re marrying two super-size flavors of the month, or unless it involves local royalty.
Me, I get the aftermath, the wives beaten, orders of protection violated. Wife stabs husband in self defense? That will sell newspapers.
Many of the criminal defendants and victims I write about from the East Hampton Town Justice Court are black or brown, Latino or Hispanic. Most of the people arresting, prosecuting, defending, and judging them are white. Maybe that means something, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. I’m just a reporter.
There are two judges in this town. They alternate week to week, Lisa Rana and Catherine Cahill. One is a Republican; one is a Democrat. That stuff shouldn’tmean anything in a small town, but it always does, except in here, on Thursdays, when the calendar reads criminal.
Cahill has a wry sense of humor. After presiding over five arraignments resulting from a Montauk brawl, she looked at the court officer and said, “Any more?”
Rana is sterner, but both can be nurturing, when called for.
You can see it in both women when a young repeat defendant comes before them.
Cahill recently arraigned a 17-year-old charged with trespassing.
“My mother’s in prison, and my father’s deported,” he told her.
She spoke with him at length, exploring his home life.
“You have very little ties to this community. You have no one willing to stand up for you. You don’t even know the name of your boss,” she said.
She released him without bail, warning him to be back in court that Thursday.
Rana recently had a kid who had plea-bargained out of an aggravated D.W.I. He would however, have to wear a collar, which detects even minute levels of alcohol consumption. One drink and he’d be back in jail.
She spent five minutes talking to him, trying to reach him, warning him about the temptations he was about to face as he returned to his world.
“Your friends will tell you it’s okay. It’s all right. One drink’s not going to hurt.” She paused. “They’re not the ones going back to jail. If you violate this, you’ll be back in jail quicker than a New York minute.”
He seemed to get it, but who knows?
Both women have watched troubled kids grow into troubled men and women. The same faces keep going through the criminal justice revolving door — petty, minor stuff, until one day they graduate, they commit a crime serious enough that they’re transported to county jail and indicted by the D.A.
No more trips to town court. Now, it’s the big time, county criminal court.
We’ve already had a couple of graduates this year.
Of course, before any of that happens, there has to be an arrest.
A reporter’s relationship with the cops can be tricky. My job is to ask questions. Detective Lt. Chris Anderson, East Hampton Town Police’s liaison to the press, has a different job — he has to catch suspects. That conflict leads to some clipped, cryptic conversations.
“So, Lieutenant, do you think he acted alone?”
“The investigation is ongoing.”
My translation: Maybe yes, maybe no. You figure it out.
Which is what I try to do, in my own way.
My competition is tough, Virginia Garrison of The Press and Taylor Vescey of Patch. Sometimes I beat them to a story, sometimes they beat me.
They’re both pros, and they both know people, and the people they know, know people, and that leads to leads.
I don’t know anybody, so all I can do is knock on doors and ask questions, and hope to get lucky.
“O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees.” Shakespeare. Not much has changed.
I’ve met very few lawyers over the years who didn’t think that they were smarter than I. Some of them are. Many of them aren’t.
Lawyers and reporters are after two different things. Lawyers want facts. A good lawyer can walk in with a valise filled with facts, lay them out on the table, and convince you that up is down and day is night.
A reporter wants the truth. If you can get to the core truth in a story, the facts, the pieces of the puzzle, will fall into place.
I recently was in court, waiting for an arraignment. Seated next to me was a New York attorney, Michael Paul. He was in court that morning defending a client accused of a theft.
I was speculating about the seeming rise in crime.
“Desperation,” he said. “People are desperate.”
When you’re desperate, you do dumb things. Bad for a small town, but good if you’re a criminal defense lawyer, or a reporter on the beat.
T.E. McMorrow is a reporter for The Star who covers police and courts as well as East Hampton Town planning and zoning matters.