Well, we're back from New York City and the long-anticipated hearing at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The building itself is an imposing structure, supported in front by massive columns (Ionic style, I believe), looking out on a large open area dominated by a large fountain, one block from City Hall Park and several blocks from the site of the World Trade Center---or "Ground Zero" as it is popularly known For us, the church where Woody was killed is our "ground zero", and this hearing was yet another event in the course of this long battle for some semblance of justice and recognition that he was wrongfully killed while begging for asylum. Anyway, on with the story.
Arriving, we discovered that Woody's case was fifth in a list of seven hearings scheduled with the three-judge panel sitting in our particular courtroom, namely Room 1505. Of the twelve judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, we were facing Hon. Rosemary S. Pooler (a Clinton appointee), Hon. Sonia Sotomayor (another Clinton appointee who apparently has sided with police victims in the past), and Hon. Edward R. Korman (a Reagan appointee (!) who is apparently a temporary "sub" on the bench in New York).
We waited in an air-conditioned anteroom, with comfortable couches and chairs, windows with a view of Manhattan on two sides, free spring water, and a closed-circuit TV where we could keep an eye on the proceedings inside the courtroom. Our party numbered thirteen (including Woody's mother and sister and two family friends), plus a newspaper reporter who was brought to New York and kept hostage for the duration by several of Woody's Connecticut friends. (She wrote an accurate article about the hearing for The Day newspaper based in New Haven). Anxiety was certainly present in the room, not to mention guarded optimism tinged with hope.
When the case just prior to ours was beginning to wind down, the thirteen of us invaded the courtroom quietly, but our sudden presence certainly caught the eyes of the judges, who were sitting on a raised dais behind a mammoth wooden structure which was much too large to call a desk or a bench. It was more like a Great Wall of Justice (or Injustice, as you prefer). The room had thirty foot ceilings and was paneled in rich dark wood, the ceiling being recessed in small squares of varying colors (pardon my lack of architectural terminology here). I cannot recall the other decorative details, my attention being elsewhere, for obvious reasons.
The Woodward's lawyer, Joel Faxon, Esq., presented the case in a succint and compelling manner, and he was interrupted and peppered with questions by the three judges throughout, poking holes in his claims and bandying about varying "devil's advocate" questions which kept him on his toes. Overall, we felt that he did a very clean job and presented well.
The rebuttal and presentation by the lawyer for the town of Brattleboro was, as previously, slightly sloppy and poorly delivered, although to his credit he did indeed win the last round in Federal District Court (with an "Old Boy Network" judge presiding, I must add). Luckily, and thankfully, the defense did not assassinate Woody's character or paint him in the light of being "mentally ill", per se. I had honestly expected to hear some harsh words about my friend and was pleasantly surprised that the lawyer did not play such cheap cards. I must say, though, that the two female judges grilled this lawyer very satisfyingly, with Judge Sotomayor beginning her first interruption by saying, "What is wrong with your town, Counsel? Do people in your town have any capability for patience?", (referring pointedly to the fact that Woody was killed by six bullets fired by two officers within one minute of entering the church, with Woody threatening no one but himself.) Sufficiently raked over the judicial coals, the defense rested, along with his very tired diagram of the church which we have seen ad nauseum.
Faxon's rebuttal was sharp, concise, and to the point, again peppered with questions, but we all felt that his points were made quite clearly. Korman, the Reagan appointee, was the most derisive, and it seemed clear that he was not leaning towards overturning the lower court's ruling. Sotomayor and Pooler, however, both seemed quite dismissive of some of the claims by the defense, and many of us agreed that Pooler appeared to be our clear choice for a vote in our favor. Thus, Sotomayor may be the deciding vote in the matter.
When the case was dismissed (a decision is expected in three to four months), we all exited en masse, and it was again obvious that the judges noticed how many people had attended. While they could not necessarily determine that we were there for the sake of Woody, I think they also noticed many heads nodding in agreement when Faxon or the judges themselves made statements with which we all vehemently agreed, and many heads a-shakin' when Brattleboro's lawyer made spurious claims which the judges riddled with holes.
To wit, we all left the courthouse feeling more hope than when we entered, buoyed by the apparent support of at least one of the judges, but also understanding that it takes considerably compelling evidence for an appellate court to overturn the decision of a lower court. That said, all we can do is patiently wait for the outcome, knowing that a decision in our favor will invariably lead to a long and possibly painful trial by jury in which our friend's character will certainly be matter-of-factly and spuriously assassinated in an effort to relieve the town of Brattleboro of any financial or moral responsibility for his death. We are all willing to undergo that test of our mettle in order for the truth to be more widely known, but realize that a trial may be painstaking and emotionally costly.
We thank everyone who has publicly and privately supported us in the run-up to this hearing, as well as in the last three-and-a-half years of legal struggle and recovery from post-traumatic stress. We're glad to be home, relieved to have this event behind us, and anxious to receive the decision that will decide whether or not Woody's death will have a chance to be fully understood and perhaps publicly shown to be the result of corruption, poor police training, and overzealous officers making tragically flawed decisions.
Mary remarked that Woody is probably having a good cosmic chuckle over the absurdity of it all, and I hope that one day we'll chuckle with him, in this life or the next.
PS: Here are links to the three articles: Rutland Herald, The Day, and Newsday