|This is the imposing Federal Court room in which I was tried several years before this picture was taken. At the time shorter defense and prosecution tales were set parallel to the bench instead of this conigfuration.|
Note: Fourth in a series of memoir posts about my adventures with the Selective Service and Justice systems in the Vietnam War era.
The Dirksen Federal Building was just a few years old back in 1973. It had replaced a large and imposing pile of stone in the Beaux Art style of the Columbian Exposition that had been reduced to rubble. In a city that prided itself on architecture, the glass curtain sky scraper by superstar Mies van der Rohe was a source of civic pride.
As I approached it from a Subway staircase on Clark Street it loomed in the gray morning like a giant black shoebox stood on end. It rose from a bleak and then as yet unadorned plaza balancing on its central bank of elevators. A skirt of floor to ceiling clear glass encased the first floor exposing an expanse of marble floor and a stone wall with aluminum letters reading The Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Court Building.
In those days there was no visible security. Doors on all side were open and hoards poured through on the way to their destinations. A lone figure stood at a desk under the stone wall. His function was mainly to direct visitors to the correct elevator.
After receiving the correct instruction, I squeezed into a packed elevator was zoomed to a courtroom floor. I was supposed to meet my lawyer, the esteemed Jason Bellow, outside the courtroom a few minutes early for a last consultation. I was early. He was not.
I fidgeted in a charcoal gray pin striped three piece suite that I had acquired in high school and not worn since, a pair of highly polished western style side zippered boots that I had borrowed from my father and which did not fit well, and a recently acquired pearl gray Stetson, my new dress hat. I wanted to look respectable.
Moments before the court call a bailiff stepped out and announced that anyone with business should come in. My lawyer was still not there.
The court room was dimly lit, much darker than I had expected. It had a large seating area totally vacant that day. In front of a rail were two tables. On the left sat two, count them two prosecutors, although only one of them would actually speak. Several piles of documents and legal pads littered the table and on one corner a thick file marked FBI laid conspicuously. A dark wood judge’s bench loomed impressively in front of a Justice Department seal on the wall. A witness box was on the right. Off to one side in the space between the bench and the counsels’ tables and a woman in a tight, short skirt sat as demurely as possible behind a stenography machine. Just like in the movies, only darker.
Moments before the bailiff was set to call the Court to order, Jason Bellow ambled in casually, a friendly smile on his face. Natty as when I had first seen him, he carried a slender black attaché case. After shaking my hand, he clicked it open and retrieved a single slender manila file. So slender, in fact, that it contained nothing but a copy of the indictment. He laid it on the table and leaned over to whisper in my ear, “Are you sure you don’t want to plead?”
Shocked, I could only shake my head before the court was called to order.
Judge Sam Perry was a small, elderly man dwarfed by his bench. He had served on the Circuit Court since being appointed by Harry Truman in 1951 and was officially retired to senior status, hearing a few overload cases each month. He was most famous for presiding over the epic trial for civil damages against the law enforcement officials who had murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. After the longest trial in the history of the circuit, Perry had dismissed all charges. He was overturned on appeal.
Despite this, he was no Julius Hoffmann and had a reputation for lenience in draft cases.
When asked by the judge, Bellow and I rose together and when asked, “How does the defendant plead? I replied as firmly as possible, “Not guilty, your honor.”
About that time my girl friend Cecelia arrived and settled into a seat in the visitors’ gallery directly behind the defense table. This was a surprise to me. At breakfast she said that she was busy and couldn’t make it. I guess she changed her plans.
After a few formalities one of the prosecutors rose to make his opening statement. “On the [blank] day of December, 1972 the defendant, Patrick Mills Murfin did willfully refuse to submit to a lawful order of induction into the service of the United States of America…” Blah, blah, blah. He laid out the facts of that day which were, as he pointed out to the judge “irrefutable.”
He could have sat down then. But he strolled from around the table and neared the bench, “Your honor,” he said pointing to the thick FBI file on the table, “The facts will show that the defendant was not motivated by religious conviction or pacifism, but by an abiding hatred of the government of the United States as shown by his willing and boastful membership in a known subversive organization.”
This was the point when I expected my lawyer to leap to his feet and object. He did not. And when it was his turn to give our opening, he said, “The Defense has nothing to say at this time.” I must have looked alarmed.
“Don’t worry, an opening would only prolong the trial and irk the judge.” He whispered to me.
The Prosecutor called his first witness, the Clerk of my local Draft Board in Skokie. He asked for a detailed history of my registration and history. Of course, that included the episode of the returned draft card and the letter from me requesting a new one. He covered my student deferment and asked if I still had any deferment. The answer was no. “So, Mr. Murfin was lawfully subject to the draft when he received his induction notice?” Yes, came the reply.
O.K. I figured that this is where we would make our case. The draft and resistance councilors at the American Friends Service Committee had discovered that I was removed from the eligibility pool for over a year while the FBI assembled that thick file on the prosecution table, and had then returned me to the pool with my window of eligibility clock set back to the date I was removed. And they never informed me that my eligibility was “suspended.” Based on that, the Quakers believed, I could argue that I refused induction in good faith on the grounds that I believed my eligibility had lapsed.
I had informed Bellow about this in our one brief consultation and provided him documents from the Service Committee and even given him their phone number for further consultation. I expected him to rise and ask the Clerk the critical questions. Instead he rose and simply said, “The Defense has no questions, Your Honor.” The witness was dismissed.
The prosecution brought two more witnesses, one of the NCOs who witnessed my actual refusal to step forward to accept induction, and one of the FBI agents who arrested me that day. Bellows had no questions for them. Neither was on the stand for five minutes.
With that the Prosecution rested. I figured maybe Bellow planned to call me and get the eligibility issue out that way. “The Defense has no witnesses, Your Honor.”
I was now in a state of shock.
The Defense got to make the first closing argument. Bellow finally stood up and had something to say. “I met this young man and found him charming and articulate.” Charming and articulate? “He comes from a good home and his father was a decorated hero of the Second World War. He is idealistic. Young men are idealistic.” He smiled warmly at the judge as if the two of them were together on some secret. And then he sat down. Our entire defense was that I was a nice, naïve young man.
The Prosecutor got in his last lick. A scornful portrait of a dangerous subversive. That was it the trial was over in about a half an hour.
The judge announced that he would retire to his chambers to consider his verdict, but instructed us to stay close. As near as I could tell, “considering the verdict” consisted of taking a leak. We were hardly out of the courtroom and I was still trying to roll a Prince Albert cigarette with shaky hands when the Bailiff called us back.
I stood in front of the judge with my attorney on one side and Cecelia, who for some reason was allowed to join us, on the other. “I find the Defendant, Patrick Mills Murfin guilty as charged…” I squeezed Cecelia’s hand.
“At this point,” Judge Perry said, “We usually release the prisoner on bail pending a pre-sentencing investigation into his character and chances of rehabilitation. That will not be necessary in this case. We know what kind of young man this is.” He waved at that damn FBI file. “I have read the documents you filled out at your induction and was shocked by your disrespect. This is no laughing matter, as you are about to find out. I sentence the Defendant to 36 months of confinement in a Federal Correctional Facility.”
I think my knees may have actually buckled. The Judge did allow me to be released on my own recognizance for two weeks to, “get your affairs in order.” He stood up and left the bench. It was over.
Did I mention it was St. Patrick’s Day? My 24th birthday.
Next: The Interim.