The courthouse coffee shop

By John Toth

As a reporter with The Houston Chronicle, part of my job was to sit in on trials that I thought might be interesting enough for the paper to follow. It was one of the tasks that I didn’t cherish, unless I actually got a bite, because it wasted a lot of time in the courthouse that could have been used doing other stories that were a sure hit.

I called it going fishing. I did it because every now and then I got a big bite that nobody else had. That made it all worth it.

I also stopped by the district clerk’s office daily to check on new civil court cases. This took less time and produced fewer results. But the results it produced usually made a big splash.

The clerks eventually made it easier by pulling the files they thought would interest me. They’d stop by the courthouse coffee shop, where I hung out, and told me what they found. “I got the files waiting for you, John,” they would say. After years of dealing with the same nice clerks, it was a great time-saver.

The courthouse coffee shop became my second office.

This was back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, when we couldn’t get records online. I had to go to the physical files and dig them out.

The criminal trials were different. I had to decide whether to try to cover those daily, or if I would miss anything by just dropping in here and there. That’s where the defense attorneys and prosecutors came into the picture -- and the courthouse coffee shop.

That’s where we engaged in small talk, like: “Are you going to put so and so on the stand today, or just go through some boring stuff that I can’t pitch to the editors?”

A direct line of questioning worked pretty well after I got to know both sides.

I covered a lot of cases where the defendant was obviously guilty, and I knew it right off the bat. And I knew that the defense attorney knew it, because he said so over coffee – in the courthouse coffee shop.

Sometimes the prosecution didn’t offer the right deal, sometimes the defendant didn’t want to accept any deal. It’s all a game. The prosecution and the defense are involved in a chess match. It’s fun to watch if you have the time.

Jurors see a well-rehearsed show that both sides know will take place. To the jurors, it’s all new and great courtroom drama.

I covered the DWI trial of a high-level county official a long time ago. He took the stand and told jurors that he drank while he drove, but he was not drunk. Back in those days, it was legal in Texas to consume alcoholic beverages while driving.

He stood up and showed them why he failed the sobriety test. He had the shakes. That’s just the way he was all of the time. I had known that for a long time. He did his show and sat back down.

The jurors found him innocent. As they filed out of the courtroom, half of them hugged the defense attorney, thanking him for his work. That was quite a scene, since right before the verdict, the attorney told me – in the coffee shop – that the guy was drunk as a skunk when he was stopped.

Showing the jury how he shakes was a good idea, I said. The guy can barely light a cigarette.

This line of defense would not work now. Texas has tightened up its DWI laws.

The old fashioned way of courthouse reporting, especially when I had to do other things on top of that, still works today. The coffee shop is still there. The business has changed, but reporting is the same. The way the courts work is also the same.

I haven’t been to the courthouse coffee shop for awhile, but if I went today and had coffee with Sandusky’s lawyer, what do you think I would hear?