Sing Sing


I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

Every man and woman ever to spend time in prison got there by way of a judge.

So it’s not surprising that judges are celebrated in song. (“Celebrated” may not be the right word for how they’re regarded. “Pissed on” is closer to the mark.)

Nellie McKay, a thirty-five-year-old folksinger Woody Guthrie would have loved, has nothing but murder in her heart for the judge. Ask her why, and she’ll say, “Well that mean old bastard wouldn’t budge.” I’ve known judges like that, but Nellie goes much further than the kind of thing that lands lawyers in contempt of court. “Bloviated turd representative of justice” comes to mind — Nellie’s mind, anyway. Nellie’s judges give consecutive life sentences to black boys for being smart with them. Thing is, she’s talking about real judges and situations in this update (the song’s been done, with kinder lyrics, by Three Dog Night, Moby Grape, Chrissie Hynde, and others), some of them mentioned at the end of the song.

Every criminal defense lawyer thinks the judges give too much prison time. Social Distortion sings of long prison sentences (“Lonely weekends, baby lonely nights: the judge he gave me, ninety-nine to life”), but that was for cold-blooded murder. Johnny Cash sings of a similar sentence, in a similar circumstance, when “that little judge…smiled as he picked up his pen…ninety-nine years in the Folsom pen.”

Bob Dylan’s been awfully hard on judges, often justifiably so. Light heavyweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was wrongfully convicted in part because of “a pig circus” presided over by a judge who “made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums.”

The Nobel laureate also sings sarcastically of the judge who handed down this harsh sentence of a white Maryland tobacco farmer who beat a black barmaid to death with a cane at a Baltimore charity ball: six months. It was to be a lonesome death for Hattie Carroll.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.

That really was a harsh sentence: black lives didn’t matter that much in 1963. Today, if the black barmaid was kind of cute, and the white tobacco farmer had a record of domestic violence, he’d get at least twice that.

Me, I’ve been pretty lucky with judges. Only had one I guess you could say I hated, but he threatened to slap me with sanctions when I demanded personnel records of a dirty lying cop who’d I suspected had done it before. He was a nasty son of a bitch (the cop, too, but I’m talking about the judge), and I always thought his mood might have been health-related. Maybe it was just gas. Chronic.

One judge particularly dear to me dismissed a case against my client after I showed up to court with full-fledged sweat-drenched pneumonia. I reckon she figured if I was willing to risk my health my client was surely not guilty.

The two best judges I ever knew were women. Both of them chief judges in my home town. Maria Berkenkotter will wear the black for the last time this Halloween, and I’ll miss her compassion and intelligence from the bench. My solace is I’ll probably see her at a few Fourth of July parties, hosted by a mutual friend, down the road.

Bob Dylan should write a song about her.


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One Response to Sing Sing

  1. Susan 16 September 2017 at 5:35 pm #

    Great writing. Maybe I’ll write a song too.

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