Most of the stereotypes that portray the South in the media are pure bullshit. The overalls and bare feet, the KKK running rampant, the no teeth backwoods squeal like a pig butt lover. But the one stereotype where the movies often get it right is the country courthouse.
So I thought as I sat in a chair outside the courtroom of the Sumter County Courthouse in Livingston, Al.., Wednesday afternoon, peering outside a large window at a stately magnolia growing outside the 19th Century building. Inside the courtroom, District Attorney Greg Griggers was prosecuting an assault charge against a man named Jerome who had invited me to see the deplorable and unsafe conditions of the Sumter County High School football field four years ago for a possible newspaper article. An incident at the school led to a fight, which my host tried to break up. But in the end, Jerome himself was charged with assault.
Finally his day in court had come, and I was the only one who could help get him off as I was the sole impartial witness to the fight. The bailiff summoned me and I walked into the room, with its high ceilings and ornately detailed judge’s bench. The facilities screamed Old South. The court reporter swore me in and I took my seat in the witness booth.
While reporting for The T-News, I always admired Griggers’ ability at questioning witnesses, but now the tables were turned and I was the one facing the grilling. Every bit of doubt I had in these events from four years ago he was able to turn on me and portray me as one who was unsure of what really happened. Trying to remember the details of an event that took place so long ago is almost impossible. The essential action was this: Jerome and I walked into the school office and found Jerome's sister and the school secretary jawing at each other. The sister asked to see the school principal and the secretary ignored her. As the secretary turned to walk out of the room, the sister grabbed her and I began to witness the first and only catfight of my life. Jerome tried to break it up and finally some teachers came into the room. One teacher grabbed Jerome and he pushed back, thus the assault charge. The teacher is white and Jerome is black, but I'm not sure it's fair to say the charge was racially motivated (and most of the jury was black, thus eliminating a bias factor against Jerome in his trial).
I finished my dribble and was excused from the courtroom after a few cross examinations. I got in my car and headed south. I received a call from Jerome later that night as I prepared to take a shower in my New Orleans hotel room. He was found guilty.