Len Downie's Investigative Roots
Leonard Downie Jr., who today announced his coming retirement as executive editor of The Washington Post after a 44-year career here, counts the newspaper's commitment to investigative and accountability journalism as one of his greatest legacies.
Among his favorite projects, Downie has singled out three that won the coveted Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service -- the 1998 investigation of shootings by D.C. police officers, the 1999 series exposing conditions in D.C.'s group homes for the mentally retarded, and last year's expose of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In his speech to staffers, Downie, 66, recounted joining The Post as a summer intern in 1964 when he was 22, becoming an investigative reporter specializing in crime, courts, housing and urban affairs.
Two years later, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work on a series uncovering corruption and inefficiency in what was then called the District's Court of General Sessions. His reporting led to the court being abolished and replaced by the District's Superior Court system.
"I decided that I liked investigative reporting," Downie said.
Below is the first part of Downie's original series, a front-page story dated Feb. 6, 1966:
Justice Found Rarely in Hullabaloo Marking Court of General Sessions
First in a series
By Leonard Downie Jr.
Confusion rules the criminal court building on a typical day as several hundred citizens charged with everything from illegal parking to murder are paraded past half a dozen judges.
Noisy groups of lawyers, policemen and defendants mill constantly around the judge's bench in each courtroom, bargaining back and forth as they hurry through the day's long calendar of cases.
Few trials are held -- most defendants plead guilty, ask to have their cases continued still another time or are told that the charges against them have been dropped.
In the crowded corridors, many defendants and their lawyers, the policemen and complaining witnesses due to testify against them mingle freely, often comparing notes on the cases they are involved in. Jurors come and go in those same halls.
Outside one courtroom, a policemen recommends a defense attorney to a man he arrested the day before and must testify against in court. Some officers have been seen discussing strategy with lawyers defending suspects they arrested.
One lawyer goes from judge to judge seeking one who will offer his client the lightest sentence -- or probation -- if his client will plead guilty. One judge carries on this whispered bargaining from the side of his courtroom bench while other cases are being tried in front of him.
One judge's clerk seems to be doing most of the talking as he calls cases, confers with lawyers, questions defendants and sometimes corrects a wrong legal ruling or improper sentence handed down by his judge.
Money can be seen changing hands in halls throughout the building as defense lawyers demand cash on the spot before advising newly assigned clients. Bail bondsmen solicit fees from relatives and lawyers of defendants who want to get out of jail on bond.
Whisky, carried in coat pockets and lawyers' briefcases, also is consumed publicly in the court building and empty bottles can be found in hallways and rest rooms by the end of the day.
This is a picture of justice as it is done daily a few blocks from Capitol Hill in 1966 in Washington's overcrowded and long-neglected Court of General Sessions.
Dignity Sadly Lacking
It is a court "badly in need of dignity" where it is "all but impossible to have a respect for justice," according to a confidential report attached to a recent court reform proposal from the D.C. Crime Commission and the United Planning Organization.
"The proceedings are incomprehensible to the uninitiated and the defendant is often visibly baffled by what is being done to him," the report continues. "Young prosecutors and defense attorneys become disillusioned...
"Many judges themselves show the signs of having capitulated to a system which counts so little in the public eye. Too often, the worst qualities of a judge are in evidence: indifference to the goals of the criminal process and unthinking, at times arbitrary, action."
It is a court where most observers believe a combination of too many cases, too few judges, too long delays, too cramped facilities and too much apathy have allowed expediency and compromise to replace meaningful justice over the years.
The court is swamped by misdemeanors ranging from traffic violations and drunk and disorderly offenses to gambling, larceny, unlawful entry and assault. Preliminary hearings and arraignments also are held for felony cases, such as rape or murder, which are tried in the higher and more prestigious U.S. District Court.
General Sessions is Washington's police court. The maximum sentence for a General Sessions conviction is 365 days in jail. Serious crimes, felonies with stiffer sentences are handled in District Court.
Generals Sessions has 15 judges (three of whom hear domestic relations cases only) who cannot possibly conduct trials for more than a fraction of the 85,000 misdemeanor cases the court handles in a year.
So most cases wind up being settled through a long-entrenched system of judicial barter.
Instead of having the case decided by a judge or jury, the defendant strikes the best bargain he can with the court.
Under this system -- one critic calls it "bargain basement" justice -- a defendant, who knows what to do and can hire the right lawyer, may get off with a light sentence while another, who usually has no money and is new to the court, may find himself quickly convicted without the formality of a trial.
"Some defendants are treated like animals," one outside observer says. "They may get cheated by an unscrupulous lawyer and are herded as quickly as possible through the court process.
"Others (there are usually the professionals) know the court well and can afford to practically call their own tune."
The court's civil case calendar is even more jammed than the criminal docket. More than 150,000 damage, small claims and landlord and tenant suits are added to it each year. Landlord and Tenant Branch alone handles 100,000 rent, eviction and housing violation cases annually. Judges know that if more than just a handful of the hundreds of defendants it speedily processes each day were to ask to have their cases decided by juries, the court would be paralyzed.
As a result of this overload, the Landlord and Tenant and Small Claims branches have become little more than collection agencies for many Washington landlords and credit firms.
The number of General Sessions judges available to handle this double-barreled caseload explosion totaling nearly a quarter of a million cases has not increased since 1950.
The civil suits involve large amounts of money. Although the suit filing limit is $10,000, awards may and have gone high above that. The court's most capable judges usually are assigned to civil cases, which also draw "uptown" lawyers accustomed to practicing in dignified conditions.
The bills are pending in Congress to expand the General Sessions bench by as many as five judges. But if either passed, there would be no space in the court's two crowded buildings for chambers for the new judges.
Every corner of every room in the buildings -- located on "Judiciary Square" between 4th, 5th E and F streets NW. -- is already being used. And there still is not enough room for vital court functions.
Prosecutors are forced to conduct hearings with policemen, defendants and lawyers at crowded, noisy public counters, which one young prosecutor calls "the assembly lines."
Seldom is there enough room in front of each section of the counter for all the participants in a single hearing. A complainant has trouble being heard over other discussions going on to each side of him.
There are no rooms for witnesses to wait until they are called to testify in court and there is so little space in the jury rooms that some juries deliberate cases in empty courtrooms and spend time between cases standing in the halls.
One of the court's newer judges, who noted that the buildings also have no cafeteria, lawyers' lounge, law library or public waiting room, rates its facilities as "crummy."
Only recently have the court's spiraling problems -- long ago accepted by most of its own officials as "the way things happen here" -- come to the attention of anyone outside it who could or would do anything about it.
The Justice Department has just finished a study of the court, which is now being put into report form. The D.C. Crime Commission has made the court a target for its staff researchers.
The United Planning Commission -- especially its legal arm, the Neighborhood Legal Services Project -- also is trying to sound out opportunities for changes in the court's relationship with the city's poor.
But up to now, most of the judicial reform attention and money has been sunk by Congress into the nearby U.S. District Court, which President Johnson seeks to make a model for the Federal court system.
Things In Reverse
"This is doing things backwards," one General Sessions prosecutor noted. "Most citizens -- defendants, witnesses and jurors -- get their first impression of the judicial process here in the Court of General Sessions.
"It is the first chance to deter or rehabilitate the young adult lawbreaker; the first chance in many cases to teach respect for the law. But we are not doing that right now and I think those in a position to change things here should do something about it soon."
The prosecutor's thoughts echoed those of President Johnson, who could have had General Sessions Court in mind when he told Congress:
" ... Local criminal courts are so over-loaded that their functioning is impeded and their effectiveness weakened ... we must examine the administration of justice in our shockingly over-crowded local courts through which so many citizens are herded wholesale ... "
It is General Sessions, and not the District Court, that is the People's Tribunal. A law abiding citizen probably has his first contact with justice in General Sessions, whether it is a traffic violator, a man collecting a $25 debt, or as a witness or juror. The General Sessions can sap his respect for law enforcement and justice in general.
Whereas General Sessions could be the ideal training ground for the young lawyers who practice "uptown." Instead it gives them a tarnished image of both justice and the legal profession.
Whereas General Sessions could be the ideal place to equip young prosecutors in the intricacies of criminal law, instead it often shows them ways to beat the system.
Whereas people seeking redress of wrong could find a legal haven, they often find instead a devastating fast shuffle, to get the calendar moving.
And whereas the People's Court could be the vital starting point for social agencies to rehabilitate and renew the first or second offender, it is instead the court where the lawbreaker is taught how to get around the law, General Sessions style.
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