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The Court of Lost Souls

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

"I'll admit that after Debbie got the restraining order," says Bob, "I went back to the house--" Manzanares cuts him off.

"Mr. Dolan," he says, "you appear to be going down the road to talking about violating your restraining order. Any testimony you give in this court can be used against you in another case. Do you understand your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent?"

"Okay," says Dolan, "I called her at the house--" The judge cuts him off again, telling him that that is also a violation of the restraining order. "Are you sure you want to talk about this?" the judge asks.

Dolan pauses for a long moment, looking tired and confused. "Your Honor," he says finally, "all I want to do is see Wendy once a week. That's all." He gets up and drags himself back to the defendant's table.

Manzanares reviews the case out loud, citing Bob's history of violence, alcohol abuse and his violation of the temporary restraining order. He rules that Bob is to have no contact with Debbie or her daughter, at least until Wendy is eighteen and can legally decide for herself if she wants to see him.

Bob doesn't protest as the bailiff gives him a copy of the new restraining order, and a deputy sheriff leads him out of the courtroom.

While people are getting married in the clerk's office on the second floor, they're breaking up on the third. Judge Manzanares refers to a permanent restraining order as a "poor people's divorce."

"Even though this court doesn't have jurisdiction for divorce issues," he says, "on a temporary basis we decide the same sort of things that are handled in a formal divorce. For middle-class or wealthy parties getting divorces, the main issues are child support, financial maintenance, division of property and a piece of paper saying that they're legally separated.

"But for poor people, who have fewer assets, the issues are separation, who stays in the home and who gets the children. While we're not designed to grant permanent custody, we can make custody decisions which last for 120 days, and we find that people usually adhere to these decisions after that period is up.

"For poor people not seeking child support, your decision might cover 75 percent of the issues otherwise determined in a formal divorce, which they may never get around to."

Denver is one of only five cities in the nation that has dedicated a courtroom to the sole purpose of handling protective orders, says Judge Brian Campbell. Anyone can petition the court for a two-week temporary restraining order, and practically all such requests are granted. Defendants are served papers. Then, if the person wants to have the order made permanent and the other party contests that request, a hearing is held. Each side has to be prepared to testify. Hearings are held during the morning sessions; requests for TROs are heard in the afternoon.

Annually, an average of 2,700 Denver residents seek temporary restraining orders, according to court officials; about half of those end up being made permanent. "It's rare for someone to get turned down for a restraining order if they follow through," explains Campbell, who presided over the Protective Orders court from 1994 to 1996 and now works in the criminal division. "The process is sort of self-culling. If you're not really that worried about the person you're seeking the restraining order against, then you probably won't follow through [by seeking a permanent order].

"But if you show up at the temporary hearing, then return two weeks later, it underscores your feelings, and the court's feelings, that a restraining order is valid. And the likelihood of the judge granting the order after a hearing is very good."

Those odds improve if the target of a restraining order misbehaves even before his case is heard. As James Leland, wearing a slick suit and toting a briefcase, approaches the front of the courtroom one morning, he mutters something in passing to former girlfriend Louise Buckner.

To bad for him that Denver County Magistrate Kathleen Boland, filling in this particular morning for Manzanares, hears it. Buckner already has a temporary restraining order against Leland.

"Mr. Leland," Judge Boland snaps, "at 9:17 this morning, you will be held in contempt of court if you try to say one more word to her." Leland attempts to regain his composure by shuffling some papers on the defendant's table.

Before Leland agrees to the permanent restraining order, he asks the court if he may read aloud from a letter he's penned to Buckner. The judge consents. Louise crosses her arms and looks out the window.

"Dear Louise," Leland reads, "I just want to apologize for all the mean and cruel things I've done to you over the past five months." Louise starts to tap her foot. "But you have no idea how it affected me when I walked into my house that night and found you in bed with Chuck."

A couple of people in the audience snicker, but Leland continues: "It is divine inspiration that makes me write this letter. I know you are a stubborn and tough woman, but I often think of your smile, your laugh and try to remember the good times, the intimate moments we shared--" Louise snorts like an irritated horse, and James stops reading.

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