by Terri Coop
Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin' up in the heartland . . .
I worked for a county prosecutor’s office in law school and learned that the courtroom is a combination of boredom interspersed with moments of dignity and drama.
This moment was none of those things.
The backstory is basic. Two kids had been, um, having relations since they were old enough to figure out how things worked. Nothing, especially parental intervention, slowed them down for a minute. Then one fateful day, the boy, who I’ll call “Jack” turned eighteen. The girl, who I’ll call “Diane” was still seventeen. Diane’s mother immediately filed rape charges on Jack.
My boss did his best to talk mom out of it, but she badgered him day and night to prosecute. Finally, a warrant went out and Jack came to court. However, my boss wasn’t about to hang a rape charge on a kid. His resolution was rather brilliant (at least from a legal standpoint).
Jack had the misfortune to come up for sentencing on the busiest day of the week. The Art Deco courtroom hummed and buzzed as lawyers and clerks negotiated justice and tended to the county’s business. A full chain gang of shackled prisoners filled the jury box and every seat in the courtroom was occupied.
The judge swept in with much pomp and called his court to order. This wasn’t just any judge. This was a senior District Court judge with an imposing presence and a booming voice that rattled the chandeliers.
Jack’s case was called and he shuffled to the podium in a shiny ill-fitting suit bought or borrowed for the occasion. He looked more like eight than eighteen. This was the heinous sex criminal that had kept my boss on the phone for over a month.
Rather than felony rape, the prosecutor had negotiated a guilty plea of misdemeanor indecent exposure. No jail time, just a fine and a promise to keep his mitts off Diane.
Little did he know the plea was going to be the punishment that would make a prison stretch seem like a piece of cake.
The judge went through the formalities with his usual flair.
“Young man, you are charged with misdemeanor indecent exposure. How do you plead?”
Out came a tiny little squeak, “guilty . . . “
A few titters from the audience.
Then, out of the blue, the judge boomed, “DID YOU SHOW YOUR PENIS TO THAT GIRL?”
The shrieking laughter was nearly drowned out by the clanking of chains a a dozen hardcore prisoners high-fived and back-slapped and generally dissolved into hysteria. It took several minutes and a threat of contempt to quiet things down. I think the plaster is still cracked.
The suit hanging on Jack’s thin shoulders went from being one size too big to about three. He was melting before my eyes.
And, in case you’re wondering, the judge made Jack answer the question. It was “yes . . .”
It took three deputies and another five minutes to restore calm and dignity to the proceedings.
I don’t know what happened to Jack and Diane. I do know that a videotape of that fateful day in the criminal justice system should be played in every sex ed class in America. The teen pregnancy rate would plummet.
“Jack and Diane,” by John Mellencamp, 1982.