The four out of state "Space Weapons Bazaar" protesters who were
arrested Wed. Nov 4th at the Qwest Center in Omaha spent the night at
the Douglas County Jail. We were Fr. Louis Vitale of CA, Fr. Jim
Murphy of WI, Steve Clemens of MN and me Frank Cordaro of IA. We were
all charged with a City of Omaha ordinance "20-155 Request to Leave" a
misdemeanor offense with a maximum penalty of six months in jail
and/or a five hundred dollar fine.
On Wed Nov 5th we appeared before Judge Darryl Lowe in what is called
"jail court" with sixty other Douglas Co Jail inmates at 1:30 p.m. for
what turned out to be the most entertaining and perplexing two hours I
have ever spent in a court room.
Jail courts are the places where people who get arrested and booked
into county jails, and do not bond out, get to see a judge for the
first time. This is the time when most inmates can plead guilty or
innocent, be assigned a court appointed attorney and have their bail
reviewed. The vast majority of inmates who appear in these jail courts
are poor and people of color. Ninety percent plead guilty, knowing
"you get the justice you can afford" in this country and if you’re
poor, you’re better off pleading guilty and doing the time up front
than pleading innocent and doing more time awaiting trial, a trial in
all likelihood you would end up losing whether you are innocent or
not. It’s not a pretty picture to watch. It’s often done with out
feelings or human concerns for those being judge.
This time it was different. The officer who talked to the sixty of us
before we were lead into court told us that Judge Lowe is a very
different kind of judge. "He's liable to ask you the strangest of
questions". The officer was not wrong. In the two hours we spent
before Judge Lowe he showed himself to be self-aggrandizing,
politically incorrect, racist, sexist, making inappropriate comments,
asking questions way beyond the scope of his professional obligation
as a judge, and delving into people's personal non-legal issues. Judge
Lowe was also one of the most caring and humane judges I have ever
seen work from the bench. Beyond his extremely large public,
entertaining ego, he showed real concern for the people who stood
before him. For those who plead guilty, he went to great efforts to
find a sentence that really matched what the inmate needed in order to
make right for the crime committed and help them get their lives back
together. Judge Lowe meted out justice that day unlike I have ever
witnessed in a court of law. It was justice with a heart.
Before the court session started Judge Lowe made some introductory
remarks. Among them was his admonition that people take personal
responsibility for their alleged activities. "If you are innocent,
plead innocent and if you are guilty plead guilty. And if you plead
'no contest' you better have a good reason cuz I don't take lightly to
people who are just trying to not take responsibility for their
As the two hour session was coming to a close it was clear the judge
was speeding up his pace, wanting to be done by 3:30 p.m. The order of
the cases was presented to him from the most serious to the least
serious. We four protesters were the last four cases of the day. We
were all in our orange jail-issued outfits. By the time Fr Louis
Vitale was called to the bench we were the only ones left in the court
room, with the judge, the prosecutor, the two court recorders and the
four jail police officers. As Fr Louis approached the bench the
prosecutor told the judge that the last four of us were all here from
the same charge and that the arrest took place at the Qwest Center the
day before. Judge Lowe did not even look at any of the paper work. He
talked about his being at the Qwest Center on many occasions for
concerts and basketball games. That was all he needed to know. Judge
Lowe asked Fr Louis “What do you plea?
"No contest" said Fr Louis.
And before Fr Louis could say anything else Judge Lowe said, "Five
days!" and pounding his gavel saying, "If you had plead guilty it
would have been three days. Next".
Fr Louis was dumbfounded. He tried to explain to the judge that all he
wanted to do was make his plea and ask that the sentencing be
postponed until the four local Omaha people went to trial. Fr Louis
needed to be on a plane Saturday morning for a speaking engagement and
Mass obligations Sunday. A five day sentence would make it impossible
for him to make his commitments. Judge Lowe would hear none of it. He
pounded his gavel and told Fr Louis if he wanted to appeal the
sentence he would have to come up with a $100,000 bond! "Next" shouted
the Judge Lowe as the guards led Fr Louis out of the court room.
Fr Jim Murphy approached the bench. And Judge Lowe asked him "What do
"No contest" said Fr Jim, and then he immediately changed his plea to "Guilty!"
"Three days" said Judge Lowe pounding his gavel. "Next!" shouted Judge
Lowe as Fr Jim was lead out of the court room.
Steve Clemens approached the bench. By this time everyone had a chance
to catch their breath. Judge Lowe finally asked Steve, "What were you
guys doing at the Qwest Center in the first place?" Judge Lowe just
assumed the four of us were arrested for intoxication. He just thought
we were four old drunks.
Steve said, "Your honor, we were there to protest the Strategic Space
Symposium. We were there to protest the selling of space weapons
technology to STRATCom!"
And from the inmate sitting area, I shouted out to the judge, "And you
just sentenced two Catholic priests to jail!"
"Catholic priest! Protest!" exclaimed Judge Lowe as the blood went out
of his face, "Bring those two priests back before me. Give me their
files." The judge asks me to join them all at the bench. We explained
to him what our nonviolent protest was all about. He congratulated us
for our witness. He said he believed in nonviolent civil disobedience.
He said more of it needed to be done. He told us his father was active
in the civil rights movement in the south. He added, “of course I was
only four years old at the time.” He shook each one of our hands. Fr
Louis knelt down with his hands raised in prayer and thank God for the
Judge’s change of heart.
We were all sentenced to time served, given a pat on the back and in
essence told ‘Job well done good and faithful servants! He ended the
session by saying “I hope you all come back again next year!”
I have never ever been treated so well. Justice, not necessarily the
Law was served that day in the Douglas County Jail.
(see also: "Finally a Judge Who Supports Civil Disobedience by Steve Clemens."
November 6, 2009
(Or these photos )