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A courthouse moment: ‘You have the rope’

“Hey! Where are you going?” The court bailiff throws his arm in front of Jaquomie Samuel, stopping him from reaching the courtroom’s most sacrosanct territory: the judge’s dias.

District Court Judge Brian C. Wilks, today’s occupant of that dias, waves the bailiff off. “No, no. I called him up here,” Wilks says. 

Judge Wilks – a genial, bespectacled man – beckons Samuel towards him. Samuel shuffles up to the judge’s dias alongside his attorney, tugging up a pair of dark jeans. 

I’ve been sitting in the courtroom for almost two hours when Samuel is called up to the dias. The steady rhythm of District Court is almost never broken – an attorney calls a name, a defendant walks to the middle of the room, an attorney motions for a continuance or a stay or something of the sort, the judge agrees. It’s all painfully predictable – until Judge Wilks calls up Samuel.

When Samuel arrives at the judge’s dias, the two men begin whispering like old friends. Judge Wilks – one hand covering his microphone – nods and holds Samuel’s gaze while he leans in, explaining something. The courtroom is quiet. Everyone – defendant, attorney, and clerk alike – is watching the unlikely duo. One so powerful, one so vulnerable.

Then, as if the moment in confidence never happened, Judge Wilks waves Samuel away. He grants his motion and calls up the next defendant in line. The routine of district court resumes.

Outside the courtroom, Jaquomie Samuel sits on a bench next to his girlfriend.

“Why did Judge Wilks call you up there?” I ask him. “I don’t see that happen very much.”

“I know,” Samuel says, smiling tightly. “But he was the one who gave me a second chance.”

“He was a judge in juvenile back when I got a charge,” he continues. “I don’t even remember what it was for, but I was 15, and I was scared. He gave me another chance. Most judges don’t care, but he cares.”

For Judge Wilks, caring is one of his judicial responsibilities. “It’s part of my job to try to make sure people don’t come back to see us in court,” Wilks says after the proceedings. “If I have a chance to do that, I will.” The judge would not comment on the specifics of his relationship with Samuel. 

But Samuel remembers what Judge Wilks said to him years ago in juvenile court. 

“Back then, he said, ‘you have the rope to hang yourself,’” Samuel recalls. “And he said, ‘if I see you back here in court, you hung yourself.’”

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