For a few tense hours the other day, it appeared my 71-year-old client, Robert Stackowitz, was going to be led from the courtroom in handcuffs, locked up, and taken to a jail to await the arrival of lawmen from Georgia. You see, he escaped from a Georgia prison 48 years ago, and returned to his native Connecticut. Georgia wants him back.
For a lifetime, he lived a peaceful life in Connecticut, avoiding the long arm of the law. It all came crashing down on him late last spring, when his name surfaced after he applied for Social Security benefits. He was arrested at his home.
Bob made a big mistake in Georgia as a young man. He agreed to serve as the driver for two men he met in an Atlanta bar. They were going to go to a residential property where they were sure valuables could be found. The homeowner was supposed to be absent. It would a quick score, in and out, with no one hurt.
When the three men arrived at the targeted home, all three went inside. When the homeowner arrived, my client helped subdue him. He was held briefly at knifepoint.
It was a terrifying ordeal.
We’d call the crime a home invasion now, and this sort of crime inspires particular revulsion. If we cannot be safe in our own homes, then where can we find refuge?
The three robbers fled, taking with them $9 and the keys to the homeowner’s pickup truck. They were almost immediately captured, and, within a matter of weeks, put on trial. Two of the defendants, including my client, were sentenced to 17 years; the third defendant got a 12-year bid.
My client went to work on a chain gang, eventually becoming a trustee when the warden discovered his skill at working on automotive engines. Soon, my client was given broad liberties, and the assignment of maintaining the county’s school buses. About two years after he began his sentence, my client walked away from his prison, got a ride to the airport, and caught a flight home, to Connecticut. He’s lived in Sherman, repairing boat engines, for decades. He owes Georgia 15 years.
The years have not been good to Bob. He suffers heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, cancer, and various circulatory illnesses. His universe is narrowed by his maladies. He spends most days sitting at a kitchen table, steps away from a restroom, and steps away from the chair in which he sleeps. When he comes to court, a friend rents him a wheelchair.
His doctors tell us that he will live, at most, another two to four years, if provided continuity of the care he is now receiving. His life expectancy can be measured in days otherwise. One doctor wrote last week that he should not travel.
Georgia is demanding that he return, at a minimum to appeal personally before the Board of Pardons and Parole for clemency. We’ve requested that, given his dire medical condition, he be permitted to request clemency by means of a Skype or some electronic medium. We’ve sent his medical records to Georgia.
No deal, say the peachy folks in Georgia.
So there we stood in Danbury, appearing before a judge after my client turned himself in on an extradition warrant. We informed the court we intended to fight extradition on the grounds that my client’s health is too compromised to make a trip to Georgia.
We then asked the judge to set a bond on my client so that he could post it and return home until a hearing could be held on whether he must return South.
The prosecutor, the Attorney General’s office, which represented the Governor, and the defense all agreed that the court had the inherent authority to set a bond in such a case. But, candidly, it happens so rarely there is not a lot of case law on the topic.
Despite the agreement among the lawyers that the judge could impose a bond, the judge was not so sure. It was a bold reminder that in a court of law, an agreement of the parties will only take you half way to the finish line. If a judge does not agree that the agreement is lawful, there will be no deal.
Judges are sometimes likened to umpires. They are not participants in the contests that take place in their courtrooms: their job is to police the strike zone, to make sure that the game is played fair and square.
I was surprised, frankly, that the judge in this case doubted his authority to grant a bond. It is a rare day I agree with both the state’s prosecutor, responsible for handling criminal matters, and the state’s attorney general, responsible for handling civil matters. Wasn’t our agreement enough?
No, is the answer. In the courts, a judge’s responsibility is to follow the law. Our judge doubted he had the authority to do what all the parties appearing before him urged him to do.
Both my client and I were terrified.
In the end, the judge imposed a bond, reserving to another day the question of whether he had the authority to do so. From a pragmatic perspective, I did not care. I walked out the door with my client, and that was all I wanted.
It rankled me some to see the umpire almost stop the game. But it chastened me, too. Courtrooms aren’t really playing fields where the parties can do whatsoever they like. The rule of law limits the rights of the parties, and the power of the judge.
I like to think that justice was done when my client was permitted to return home that evening after posting a bond with the court clerk. But I know a day is coming when the long arm of the law may well seize him, and, given his health, potentially kill him in the process.
Can’t Georgia see that the 48 years my client lived in Connecticut without drawing the law’s attention shows he’s made amends? Can’t he be permitted the luxury of dying at home, among those who love him? Must justice have the last word, and draw the last breath from a good man who long ago made a horrible mistake?