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A courtroom drama

A Utah defense attorney guides his clients through a changing justice system and the impact of COVID-19

Alex Ramos stands in front of the U.S. Courthouse for the District of Utah. Ramos wears a mask, which he already had to mitigate the effects of air pollution, as often as he can.
Provided by Alex Ramos

In the cool of a March morning, Alex Ramos stomps up the steps to the federal courthouse, a Borg-like glass cube in downtown Salt Lake City. Young and slender, in a fitted blue pinstripe suit, brown leather shoes, and a floral tie his mother gave him, he jokes with the guards as they wave him through security. One last time until ... nobody knows when.

Nobody knows that Rudy Gobert will test positive for coronavirus that night. That the NBA will cancel its season. That businesses will shutter. That the courts will try to do justice without a courtroom as the pandemic stalks the jails. There’s a lot nobody knows.

But Alex, a 32-year-old criminal defense attorney, is meeting a client who knows what he wants. He finds him upstairs in a U.S. Marshals holding cell, wearing a jumpsuit from the Weber County Jail. With thick black hair and black spectacles to match, Alex fiddles with the fluorescent lighting to better see the man’s face through a metallic mesh divider. He goes over the case, lays out the options, but his client wants to take the deal.

Ten years is a long time, but it’s better than rolling the dice. And with any luck, it’ll get him out of county and off to federal prison before COVID-19 comes rolling through.

Alex knows his clients are anxious. “On the outside, we have control,” he says. “In there, you’re just hoping it doesn’t come.” So he tries to get them out, as many as he can. That’s always the job, but right now the authorities have a reason to cooperate.

He has mixed feelings about that.

“Oh, now you don’t think they’re a threat?” he wonders. “So why were they incarcerated in the first place? The people who are in there are still dangerous — because they can’t pay bail?”

Alex is an idealist, but the answers are tricky. He learned that as a rookie, when his client, who was paroled to a treatment center, killed a Unified police officer before cops shot him dead. Alex spent many sleepless nights tugging at his sheets, wondering if he was at fault.

Some think the answer is obvious. “How can he represent those people?” they ask his wife. “Those people,” he repeats. But to Alex, we’re all “those” people. And their rights — our rights — including the right to an attorney, are the essence of American justice.

The smell of antiseptic greets him in the seventh-floor courtroom of Judge David Sam, who’s 86 years old. The clerk moves from table to table, chair to chair. “I’ve been wiping down everything,” she explains, “for the judge.”

Soon, a wipe won’t do the trick.

Jails will make it harder to meet with his clients and look them in the eye. Hearings will move online. He’ll struggle to do his job when he can’t read body language or advise his client in a whisper. He’ll have to decide if a virtual jury can do justice when the defendant is just a face on a screen. He’ll worry that judges and attorneys seem to enjoy working from home, in suit coats and gym shorts. “There’s just no way our criminal justice system could continue like this,” Alex says later. “It’s sort of like watching a sport rather than playing it.”

On the other hand, he thinks maybe the pandemic can make an “inept” system better. As “unnecessary” hearings disappear from clogged dockets. As jails release people who suddenly don’t feel so dangerous. “The coronavirus is showing us all the cracks,” he says.

But these questions are still distant as Judge Sam accepts the guilty plea from the shackled defendant. Alex checks his calendar. He wants to delay sentencing until he can argue in person, but his client wants to get it done, even if that means justice by WiFi.

“Who knows,” Alex thinks as he crosses the bar and walks out the double doors at the back of the courtroom, “how this sentencing is gonna go.”