Updated: January 22, 2014 at 8:40 am
I spent a month in the Manitou Springs Municipal Court on Tuesday morning, watching a parade of traffic and criminal cases that left me, at various times, shaking my head in disbelief, wincing in pain and, once in a while, chuckling.
But most of all, my four hours in court left me with a sense of admiration for Municipal Judge J. Martin Thrasher and an appreciation of our justice system and the process that allows folks to stand up in their favorite mud-stained Zombie logo hoodie, face a judge, plead their case, moan, whine, apologize, profess their innocence or say whatever they think might help. (Or not help, as I witnessed repeatedly.)
Frankly, it was amazing and I'd encourage everyone to take a morning, as I did, and watch the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and Colorado Statutes and Manitou municipal ordinances all collide in a hot, stuffy, crowded little courtroom.
Over my 33-year career, I've covered a lot of trials. I've served on juries and even testified as a witness in an attempted murder trial. I'm always impressed by the mystique of the robes, as they call it, from state Supreme Court hearings down to municipal courtrooms.
And it's my impression that the smaller the stage, the more meaningful the justice. The law becomes very personal. It's one-on-one, 10-feet-from-the-judge, in-your-face justice.
Bottom line, it's a lot harder to lie and get away with it.
That was the case Tuesday in Thrasher's modest courtroom, where, since 2003, he has presided over traffic tickets and misdemeanor crimes a few days a month.
I felt I'd been transported into Mayberry, the fictional town from the classic 1960s "The Andy Griffith Show" on television. The characters in court Tuesday were every bit as wild as Gomer Pyle, Deputy Barney Fife, chronic vandal Ernest T. Bass and Otis the town drunk.
I was there to cover the case of Phillip Cargile, better known as the "Wagon Man," who was in court on four tickets he received in recent weeks for dragging his caravan of three small children's wagons and a large U.S. flag through the streets of Manitou Springs.
Cargile said it's his job and mission in life to walk the streets, his right arm held overhead, to raise the spirits of all those who are suffering around him.
"My job is to lift the community," Cargile told me outside court.
He was wearing his trademark straw cowboy hat and patchwork overalls as well as a striped poncho with two large cardboard signs around his neck.
The front sign declared "BE POSITIVE."
The sign on his back warned: "Where there is no vision, the people will perish."
But there weren't positive developments in the courthouse on Tuesday for Cargile or the dozens of people who preceded him at the podium facing the judge.
One after another they faced Thrasher for a speeding ticket, or for running a stop sign, or for stealing, or for illegally using marijuana or other crimes.
Many had met with city prosecutor Debra Eiland to negotiate plea agreements to avoid more serious traffic charges. Others indignantly demanded jury trials and public defenders. Some wanted to argue and insisted on facing the police officer who ticketed or arrested them. Still others tried to explain that they couldn't pay previous fines and pleaded for more time.
One man quietly confessed to being a homeless alcoholic who had been accepted in a yearlong rehabilitation program that includes a 45-day lockdown, making it impossible for him to make court dates.
A Sunday school teacher and student tried to explain why she was arrested for failing to comply with police. She was barely audible in her rambling, incoherent explanation.
An indignant man barely hid his rage for having served five days in jail for failure to pay fines for his arrest for illegally selling jewelry on the sidewalk.
Defendants were contrite, apologetic, angry and defiant. Sometimes all at once, it seemed, as they stood before Thrasher, who treated each with respect, was patient with most and compassionate with many.
He was also tough when glib, unrepentant defendants showed a lack of respect for the court.
Thrasher had one man led out of court by police with orders to call his family and tell them he would be going to jail unless they came down and paid his long-overdue $510 in fines and court costs. Within an hour he returned with his brother, who had a checkbook.
Thrasher was at his best with first offenders and teenage defendants caught with marijuana or speeding or similar offenses.
He congratulated them when they stood before him with a parent at their side.
"It's very important for parents to stand up with their children," he said several times.
He asked about their offense and seemed genuinely interested in their answers and their futures.
He had little sermons for some and words of encouragement for most.
Best of all he was patient, especially when tempers began to flare as folks holding plea agreements waited for hours in the gallery for their turn.
One man was filled with righteous indignation at being ticketed for running a stop sign. And he was offended when prosecutor Eiland offered to reduce the charge to a broken windshield wiper to save the man points on his license and possible increases in his insurance rates from a moving violation.
"I don't have a broken windshield wiper," he said, withdrawing his plea and complaining that he should have been given a warning, not a ticket. "Can't this be dismissed? Do you have any discretion?"
Ultimately, he accepted the plea and paid the $160 fine. But he was clearly exasperated and scolded Thrasher for allowing police to write petty tickets to generate revenue for the town.
In fact, several defendants also took the opportunity to scold Thrasher and the police, declaring they'd leave and never do business again in the tourist town.
Thrasher politely invited each to address the City Council, which passes ordinances and sets police policies.
"It's the right thing to do to listen to people," Thrasher told one defendant after she thanked him for his time.
"And it's your right to be able to express yourself."
Finally, about noon, the Wagon Man faced Thrasher on four tickets for "pedestrian in the roadway."
Manitou Springs Police Chief Joe Ribeiro has cited Cargile for illegally walking in the street. Ribeiro has told me he worries Cargile will be hit by a vehicle as he pulls his caravan of wagons in the street at night, especially when there is snow and ice on the road. He wants Cargile to walk on the sidewalks.
Prolonged negotiations with Eiland failed to produce a plea agreement.
"She said she'd eliminate all the tickets if I will just stop walking," Cargile told me. "I said show me one law that I broke. I'm going to fight it. I want a jury trial."
And that's what he told Thrasher, who set his trial date for 12:30 p.m. Feb. 18.
Cargile, who was homeless when I met him in May, hopes to hire an attorney and win at trial.
He's also considering leaving Manitou, and even Colorado, to return to his native Panama City, Fla., where he walked his wagons for 13 years before coming here last spring.
"I'm going to leave," he said. "I'm getting out of here. They are running me off."
With that, he grabbed his wagons and set off down Manitou Avenue, past City Hall where he'd just faced the judge, his large flag flapping in the breeze and his right arm high above his head.
Read my blog updates at blogs.gazette.com/sidestreets