Judge Joe Brown takes his final off-camera bow
By Jim Hanas
MAY 1, 2000: The sheriff's deputy posted inside the door of the courtroom did not know what kind of day it had been. She had just arrived here in Division 9, she explained, so if there had been any pageantry or bitter sweetness, she had missed it.
"It was real nice this morning," she said, enthusiastically. "A panel of judges gave him a standing ovation."
Friday was Judge Joe Brown's last day on the bench in Shelby County Criminal Court and this woman in the red dress sounded like a fan, clearly pleased by the niceness of the occasion. Within the hour, however, she was standing before Brown, entering a guilty plea to simple possession of a controlled substance; a somber piece of business that had apparently not dampened her warm memories of the morning's ovation in the least. Such is the power of celebrity.
Joe Brown, who until now was the only TV judge to simultaneously hold a position on a real bench, has always been something of a celebrity. Whether it was through creative sentencing or his controversial handling of the case of James Earl Ray, Brown has lent himself to being televised.
Now finally television has won out, as Brown leaves the bench for good to devote his time to his syndicated television show, Judge Joe Brown. And although there were no TV cameras in Brown's nearly empty courtroom Friday afternoon, his celebrity was still subtly in evidence, through the reaction of the woman in the red dress, for example, and through Brown's discussions with courtroom staff about his early-morning appearance on the Today show.
Less star struck, perhaps, was the man who faced three years for trying to sell more than a hundred grams of cocaine to a buyer who had become friendly with police. He had already pleaded to much less than that, and now he was asking for probation. All he had to do was come clean with Joe Brown.
The man tried to protect his supplier, and he dodged explaining why he had been fronted so much cocaine if he had never trafficked in it before.
"Stop being slick," came Brown's direct advice from the bench. "It ain't gonna work and you ain't no good at it."
Judge Brown may make "good television" -- a strikingly amoral industry catchphrase, since what makes "good television" is "bad" for nearly every other purpose -- but he is even better in person. He stalks the bench like Captain Ahab, occasionally propping himself behind his leather wing-back chair and tugging on his knuckles.
"You've got 10 seconds, by my watch, to get your act together," Brown, leaning casually against the side of his carpeted pulpit, told the would-be probationer before turning to the man's lawyer.
"He qualifies for diversion, but he's got to stop lying to me." A five-minute recess was called, during which photographer Ernest Withers snapped a few shots of Brown on the bench to commemorate the day.
The man in the hot seat, meanwhile, apparently received a short course in the world according to Brown from his lawyer. After the recess, he had no more secrets, telling Brown what it was he wanted to know. Without missing a beat, Brown granted him three years supervised probation. Negotiating with Judge Brown is a little like negotiating with God. He'll help you out if only you'll surrender completely.
Brown's final case of his 10-year career on the bench involved a mildly mentally retarded man convicted of having sex with his 12-year-old niece. Having served one year of an eight-year sentence, the man was petitioning the court to have his sentence shortened. The pleas on both sides were impassioned, and Brown carefully sounded out the various interpretations of the case before denying the petition, declaring the defendant's actions "reprehensibly evil."
A quick run through the docket revealed that there was nothing else to be done.
"Thanks guys; it's been a pleasure," Brown said as he bounced the docket off his desk and got up to leave Division 9 for the last time.
After he'd gone, staff and deputies were left looking at each other in silence.
The just-defeated attorney finally spoke up.
"Let the record reflect that I got the last hearing," he said.
Such is the power of celebrity.
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