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Lack of Courtroom Sheriffs Frustrates Judge

Lack of Courtroom Sheriffs Frustrates Judge

Will Lynch, right, talks to a sheriff's deputy as he appears in a San Jose, Calif. , courtroom for his arraignment, Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. [AP]

Providence Journal via YellowBrix

November 23, 2010

PROVIDENCE — The state’s top Superior Court judge says the shortage of courthouse sheriffs is so acute that the safety of the judges is at risk and it’s just a matter of time before a serious incident takes place in the Licht Judicial Complex on South Main Street.

Presiding Judge Alice B. Gibney has sent out word that none of the building’s judges or magistrates should take the bench for arraignments, criminal hearings or trials unless there are at least two uniformed sheriffs in their courtroom.

“I have told the judges that if you don’t feel comfortable getting on the bench, do not get on the bench,” she said. “On any given day, I take the bench without a sheriff. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Gibney discussed the staffing situation in an interview to which she had invited Lt. Jason Allaire of the Sheriff’s Department, Joseph V. Conley, Superior Court administrator, and J. Joseph Baxter, Supreme Court administrator.

All of them agreed that the staffing has been inadequate for the past “two to three years,” but now it has reached the breaking point. Last week, there were four criminal trials going on simultaneously in the courthouse and the safety of the judges, juries, witnesses and spectators were at risk, they said.

One of the trials involved Nayquan J. Gadson, who was on trial with Michael Stokes, both of Providence, on robbery and weapons charges. In July, Gadson swapped identities with another inmate and escaped from the Adult Correctional Institutions. He was captured in New York City 11 days later.

Gadson was deemed a security risk and six sheriffs were assigned to the courtroom.

The other trials involved defendants accused of sexual assault, felony assault and domestic assault.

The Licht building was so understaffed, the court officials said, that even Executive High Sheriff Gary P. Dias had to leave his administrative duties at his office in Cranston to work one of the courtrooms in Providence.

“It was scramble, scramble, scramble,” Gibney said.

Fortunately, Gibney said, the judges, sheriffs and courthouse staff survived the week without any incidents, but she said that she’s not willing to take the same chance again. Now, if a courtroom does not have at least two sheriffs for a criminal case, she will tell the judge to postpone the trial.

Gibney and the court officials said the sheriff shortage has a ripple effect on courthouse security in District Court, Family Court and Workers’ Compensation Court, but the problems are most acute in Superior Court, Providence, where the majority of the state’s felony criminal cases are tried.

On Thursday, in District Court, Warwick, Judge Frank J. Cenerini called a recess for about 30 minutes when there were no sheriffs available to bring prisoners from the cellblock to his courtroom. Defense lawyers, prosecutors and court personnel were forced to wait.

The problem has been simmering in the court system for nearly a decade. In late 2002, state police Detective Lt. Stephen Lynch was sent to Superior Court to serve as interim administrator of the Sheriff’s Department.

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