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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

"Then in June we went to the grocery store, and he was rushing me," she says. "I wasn't finished picking things out, but he didn't want to wait anymore, so he took the grocery cart and went to stand in line. I had to carry all the rest of the groceries in my arms.

"Then when we got home, he started throwing my spices away and said they were taking up too much space. So I told him I was going downstairs to the basement to throw some of his junk away, and when I was going down the stairs, he pushed me down and then laughed at me. After that, our children told me to get a restraining order until he stops drinking."

Mary nods to Judge Manazanares, signaling that she's finished testifying.
Manzanares asks Rudolfo if he'd like to cross-examine his wife. Rudolfo remains seated for a moment, rubbing his chin slowly, before he stands up and steps to the podium. He adjusts the microphone, which emits a squelch of feedback.

"When you said I pushed you," he questions, "maybe you tripped?"
Mary harrumphs. There is a long pause before the judge asks Rudolfo if he has any further questions.

"No," he says. "My memory isn't too good. I can't think right now."
The judge asks Rudolfo to come forward and testify. He keeps his comments brief.

"I think she's just tired of me," he says. "Couples always fight."
"But they don't hit," Manzanares interjects.
Mary steps up to the podium for her cross-examination.
"Did you drink this morning?" she asks Rudolfo.
"No."
"Are you going to sober up?"
"I don't know," he responds stubbornly.

Manzanares grants Mary the restraining order on the basis of Rudolfo's past violence and current alcohol abuse. The two make their way back to the gallery and sit next to each other wordlessly while the clerk fills out their paperwork. Mary gets hers first and leaves the courtroom while Rudolfo ponders what just happened.

"She's been talking to our daughter too much," he says. "None of this makes any sense."

Julia Cruz considers the question Judge Manzanares has posed to her through a Spanish-speaking interpreter: What does she want from the court?

"The first thing I want you to do," Cruz tells the judge, "is bring my husband up in front of the court and beat the living hell out of him."

A couple of the deputies hold back smiles while Mr. Cruz, standing a few feet away from his wife, looks at the ceiling.

Manzanares denies her request for a public beating of her husband but does grant her a permanent restraining order.

"People talk about violence on TV," says Judge Campbell, "but a lot of kids are getting a stereo version at home as their parents fight it out behind them." He estimates that 80 percent of the requests for restraining orders stem from domestic violence.

But Judge Manzanares says juvenile crime is the most disturbing trend he's seen during his stint in the Protective Orders court. "I've seen at least a half-dozen cases involving schoolchildren as young as eleven coming in here trying to get restraining orders against another kid," he says. "And what that tells you is that families and schools have not done their jobs, when a schoolyard fight escalates into a restraining-order case."

Manzanares adds, "And what do you do when an eleven-year-old violates a TRO? Ground him?"

Like Campbell, Manzanares looks at home life as the reason for increased juvenile violence.

"Domestic violence, not violence on the streets, is the first act of aggression that a child sees," he says. "Because of this, too many people in our society grow up not understanding that violence against another person is inexcusable. I see so many people in this court who have never thought about violence. They never thought they could control their own behavior."

Even in court.

The people responsible for controlling the violent tempers in Courtroom 303-W are deputy sheriffs, one of whom is always present while the court is in session. Usually sitting in the unused jury box with a couple of prisoners awaiting their hearings, the deputies "take people down two or three notches," says Judge Campbell. "Their presence is pivotal."

When tempers start to flare, which is often, more deputies arrive on cue to calm things down.

Defendant Carl Britton is a man so slight that he appears to list to his left side from the weight of his cell phone. He speaks with the laid-back accent of the Virgin Islands. Small or not, he's been violent. He admits that he hit his ex-girlfriend, Mallory, twice a few years ago. But he really starts stewing when Mallory tells the court that he's not fit to take care of their young son.

"Carl," Mallory asks during cross-examination, "do you know where Carl Jr. goes to school?"

"No," he replies bitterly. "He only been in school two weeks. And how can I know when I'm living in a motel?"

"Do you know who his doctor is? Do you know if he's up to date on his shots?"

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