The Peanut Gallery

The Peanut Gallery

It is 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night at Manhattan’s Criminal Court House, and a peanut gallery sits in the back rows of the courtroom benches, whispering a running commentary of the night’s arraignments. Speaking in hushed voices to avoid being thrown out of the courtroom, the four 20-something men sprawl over two court benches as they wait to see a friend’s arraignment, slumped in the seats and ensuring that everyone around them can just barely overhear their opinions about each case. One has rib-length black braids that gently swing side to side as he lowers his head and snickers at arrest details.

In front of the peanut gallery sit three young people with expensive-looking haircuts in attendance for the novelty of watching criminals be arraigned. The two boys and one girl all wear thick scarves, one black, one gingham and one gray cashmere. Their heads swivel as two bulky policeman patrol the aisles, periodically asking people to be quiet or letting family members know that their relative will be next in front of the judge.

Behind a bustle of suited and tired looking lawyers sits the judge on a high platform. She has dark hair parted down the middle and turquoise drop earrings hanging beside her black glasses. To her right sits a heavy, red-headed court reporter, hands poised and ready to type.

One of the members of the peanut gallery leans back and asks a question to a young woman. She answers, but the answer is cut off by one of the police officers loudly ordering her to stop talking. “But he asked me a question!” she says. The police officer orders her out of the courtroom. “But I’ve been waiting to see this case all day! You’re a bully!” she yells. “I am not a bully! Get out,” he says as he leads her out the back door.

The first defendant is a slight young man named Ricky Houston with faded green tattoos circling his thin neck. He approaches the judge and holds his hands clasped behind his back. The assistant DA explains that Houston was arrested after stealing a credit card at an East Village bar, and then proceeding to run up a $243 drink bill at the same bar. Houston tried to pay for the drinks with the stolen card, but the victim, who was still in the bar had already reported the card missing. The card was flagged and the police were called. The peanut gallery snickers uncontrollably after this, peppering their stifled laughter with “idiot” and “damn!”

Houston’s lawyer explains to the judge that this is his first arrest, he is enrolled in a GED completion program and his mother is in the audience. At this, a small, grave looking woman with a colorful headscarf rises halfway from the bench and raises her hand. The judge thinks for a few minutes before setting bail at $3,000. Both Houston and his mother looked stone-faced as this was announced.

As Houston swaggers out of the courtroom past his mother, an extremely tall, good-looking defendant is led towards the judge. Daniel Angler, a Canadian university student, had been visiting New York with his girlfriend for the weekend when he got inebriated and punched through a bar window. When police tried to arrest him, he fought back and sent one officer to the hospital with a shoulder injury.

Angler, dressed in a stiff black pea coat, dwarfs his petite lawyer as she asks the judge to release her client and not confiscate his passport. The lawyer insists that her client is not a flight risk. Angler’s girlfriend leans forward in her seat to make sure she hears every detail, looking dangerously close to tears. After a few minutes of writing and silence, the judge sets bail at $1500 and orders Angler to surrender his passport. His trial date is in three weeks time. “Man, she is nasty!” comes a whisper from the peanut gallery.

As Angler is led back to the cells, he holds his head in his hand and pulls his hair. His lawyer walks out of the courtroom with the now teary-eyed girlfriend. “I need you to go back to the hotel right now and get his passport,” the lawyer instructs her.

There is a brief pause in the courtroom, and the judge breaks from her austere persona and laughs with the red-haired court reporter. They banter back and forth as lawyers and clerks shuffle around the speckled linoleum floor with long file folders. During the break, a young woman in a dirty black Nike hoodie and ripped jeans is led in handcuffs to the front row of the spectator benches. She is about 5”3, slim with bleached hair, tan skin, and a black right eye. As she approaches, the peanut gallery notes, “Damn, she has that good walk.”

The court resumes and the young woman, Manuela Blanco Lopez, approaches the judge with her lawyer and a Spanish translator. The assistant DA explains how the young woman, a stripper living in East Harlem, came home to the apartment she shared with three other adults and a baby, to find her cellphone missing. Convinced one of the roommates had stolen it, she soaked a sponge in nail polish remover and lit it on fire, resulting in a blaze that had to be put out by firefighters. The two adults and baby were okay, but one of the roommates suffered burns on 40 percent of his body and is currently in a coma. “She’s so crazy,” hisses the same young man from the peanut gallery, clearly changing his mind about Lopez.

The assistant DA asks the judge to issue a restraining order and requests bail at $500,000, mentioning that Lopez has three open bench warrants. Lopez’s lawyer explains the remorse his client feels. The judge sets bail at $1500, issues a full restraining order and sets a trial date for December.

Lopez walks back towards the benches and sits with her interpreter as her lawyer explains that she needs to take a picture of her face. The whole courtroom is buzzing with shock at the horrific details of Lopez’s case. People crane their necks to get a good look at the tiny, ashamed looking young woman. As she leans against the courtroom wall and has her picture taken, more than forty pairs of eyes stare. Her black eye stands out, the blood underneath turned dark purple near the edges. As she walks back to the bench and converses quietly with her Spanish translator, a member of the peanut gallery delivers his closing statement. “She’ll be an old lady when she comes out.”

 

 

 

 

 

About author

Hannah Griffin
Hannah Griffin 1 posts

I am a 24 year old Canadian living in New York City. I completed an undergraduate English degree in Halifax before spending moving to British Columbia where I taught snowboarding before beginning my master's degree.

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