The Court of Lost Souls

Open the doors of Courtroom 303-W and hear the everyday tales of violence, tragedy and heartbreak

Moments after a sobbing Gene Sanchez staggers out of Denver County Courtroom 303-W, having just lost custody of his four kids, Judge Lawrence Manzanares bursts out of the adjoining clerk's office in pursuit.

At first, the people lingering outside the courtroom don't recognize the judge out of his robes--he looks much smaller off the bench and in street clothes--but then they quickly clear a path and point in the direction in which Sanchez has headed. The judge catches up to Sanchez in the cafeteria and tries to talk him into returning to court to negotiate parenting time. Sanchez doesn't go for it, but Manzanares isn't sorry he chased after him. He wanted to keep track of him after ruling against him.

"I was worried he might try and take the kids," the judge explains.
Throughout his stint presiding over Protective Orders court, where he grants temporary and permanent restraining orders prohibiting contact between disputing parties, Manzanares has found himself in some very unjudicial situations.

"Last week a guy came in seeking a restraining order against his girlfriend, who he just found out was really a man," he says. "One woman wanted me to grant her a TRO to make another woman stop casting witchcraft spells on her. I've had to get down off the bench in my black robes and break up fights. And I've seen thousands of domestic-violence cases."

As steamy and sorrowful as any daytime talk-show set, Courtroom 303-W is the place where songs and soap operas about cheating hearts and broken promises come to life, where people who can no longer talk to each other conduct cross-examinations in public about intimate details of their painful relationships.

"It's not a pleasant court to preside over," Manzanares acknowledges. "People are angry, bitter and hostile. But even if this isn't the place where I'd always choose to be, I know it's one of the most important courts in the building."

Bob Dolan (his name, like others in this story except for those of public officials, has been changed to preserve his anonymity) is led into the courtroom shackled and wearing ill-fitting gray jail clothing. His estranged wife, Debbie, stands at the plaintiff's table and doesn't look at Bob even when he's placed at a table five feet to her right and stares at her through eyes sunk deep in their sockets.

Judge Manzanares asks Debbie if she wants to make her temporary restraining order permanent. She says yes. He asks Bob if he objects. He does not, on the condition that he is allowed visitation rights to his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Wendy. Debbie doesn't want Bob anywhere near her daughter, and Manzanares says that since visitation rights are being disputed, the case will go to hearing--right now.

Neither party has legal counsel, and the judge explains to them how the process will work. Debbie, as the plaintiff, will testify first as to why Bob should be denied visitation rights. Bob will then be allowed to cross-examine his estranged wife, after which he will have his turn testifying.

Debbie is sworn in by the judge and takes a seat in the witness box. After stating her name and address, she explains the situation.

"Bob's been in jail before for punching Wendy," she begins. "He just gets real violent when he's drinking.

"After the last time he hit her and went to jail, he stopped drinking for six years. But just last month he started up again, and one night he came home drunk and threatened to punch Wendy because she was swinging a jacket in the living room and it hit him in the face."

Bob slouches in his chair while Debbie continues: "And when he's been drinking, he drops lit cigarettes and leaves the stove on. I'm just afraid that he's gonna burn the house down. And when I got the restraining order two weeks ago, he came by the house and stole Wendy's dog. We looked for that dog for five hours until he called and asked me, 'Is something missing?' He told me that he had the dog and was gonna choke it--hurt the dog like I hurt him. I'm just afraid that he's gonna try to kidnap Wendy, and I don't want him anywhere near her."

The judge tells Bob, who's been locked up for two days on an unrelated warrant, to approach the podium so he can cross-examine Debbie. He stands up wearily and has to use one hand to hold his pajama-like jail bottoms so that they don't fall down. He ponders for a moment before asking his first question.

"How are my birds doing?" he croaks. "I have some very expensive birds that she said were going to get sick."

Manzanares stops him right there. "Birds don't have anything to do with this," he says. "If you have questions relevant to visitation rights, you may ask them."

Bob shrugs, then sits back down. Debbie returns to her seat. It's Bob's turn.

He explains that while he hasn't been drinking lately, he and Debbie have been doing a lot of cocaine. He admits that he was drinking cough syrup in order to calm down from the coke. But a couple of weeks ago, when Debbie went out to get him some cough syrup and didn't return for several hours, he starting boozing again.

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