Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Southwest Virginia courthouses

VLW Blog links here to this story in the Bristol paper that says Smyth County has agreed to spend $24 million to upgrade the courthouse at Marion.

I've been in the courthouse up there many times. I'm not sure that it is any worse or less secure than the courthouses in Lee County and Scott County, or Dickenson County and Buchanan County for that matter, but maybe it is. I don't know the set-up of the juvenile courts in those places, where the security risks are very real. The Tazewell County courthouse was redone and seems very nice. The Washington County courthouse is confusing but it has far better security than the others. The Wise County courthouse is also confusing but at least the main courtroom is pretty far from the street.

Michael Large has cool virtual tours of some of these buildings on his website.

Probably the most interesting looking was the federal courthouse they tore down in Abingdon.

Courthouse security is better everywhere now than it was. Years ago, while I was still in law school, I went to Russell County for the first time to see part of a murder trial, where the defendant was represented by John Lowe. During one of the breaks, I stood out on the front porch for a while looking out over the town when I realized the fellow standing next to me, having a cigarette and sharing the view, was the defendant.

The only "modern" building for miles around is here in Bristol. (The buildings in Christiansburg and Bristol and maybe Jonesville are, as I recalls, the only Southwest Virginia courthouses that didn't qualify for the book, Virginia's Historic Courthouses.) The story is often told that while the design of the Bristol complex was lauded as escape-proof, with underground connections between the jail and the court, supposedly the defendant at one of the early trials in the new building ran out of the courtroom and out the front door.

One retired local lawyer told a similar tale recently, or maybe it was the very same case, where his court-appointed client fled the premises after the jury had retired, prompting then-Judge Davis to comment that the defendant was apparently dissatisfied with his lawyer's summation.

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