by Mark Morris, The Kansas City Star
May 15, 2002
Sporting acres of granite, limestone and polished wood, there is, by design, no more imposing public building in Kansas City than the U.S. District Courthouse.
Given the business conducted there—bankruptcies, civil suits and criminal cases - it's not the sort of place that anybody really would want to be.
But every year, about 1,000 area residents make a trip to the courthouse for a cordial view of the federal justice system, courtesy of the men and women who do the work.
For 10 years, the clerk's office has been the host of tours of the courthouse that feature a string of speakers who do the heavy lifting of federal justice. From judges to jailers, guests get an inside look at the system that goes far beyond high school civics texts.
The tours have served groups as diverse as law firm interns, graduating police cadets, Boy and Girl Scouts, senior citizens groups, civic organizations and school classes.
"It's a joy to talk to groups like this," Chief Magistrate Judge John Maughmer said recently. "You always get a lot of good questions."
Those questions can come right to the point. On a recent tour for the Shepherd's Center of the Northland, Maughmer bemoaned the new levels of security that have become a fact of life since the Oklahoma City bombing. Judges in Kansas City, he said, must work in secure office areas that are inaccessible to the public.
"We, as judges, are very isolated and can't have contact with everybody," Maughmer said. "Maybe that's a necessary evil now."
What if something goes wrong in the courtroom, someone asked. Maughmer pointed back to his bench.
"If anything goes south, I've been told to dive down," Maughmer said, where he'd be protected by a bulletproof panel built into the woodwork.
But that's not likely to happen, the group had learned earlier.
In a knockout presentation, Shervonne Gallow, a former Leavenworth police officer now with the U.S. Marshal's Service, described in detail how she manages prisoners coming into the courthouse. With the help of a deputy clerk, Gallow demonstrated her technique for shackling prisoners.
"If you see someone wearing orange and not wearing these," she said, jangling the leg irons, "call someone."
Gallow also described one technique for hunting down an ex-con who has violated the terms of his probation.
"Ask the ex-wife," she said. "Believe me, the ex-wife is always willing to say where Billy Bob is if he hasn't been paying child support."
Visitors received a demonstration of the electronic equipment the probation office uses to keep track of offenders sentenced to home detention, and handled a nifty skin patch used to detect illicit drug use.
"Why do these offenders keep doing the same thing over and over and keep going to prison?" one guest asked.
The woman from the probation office phrased her response carefully.
"Sometimes the sentence may not have been strict enough to get their attention," she said. Because of the sensitive nature of her work, the probation officer asked not to be identified by name in this article.
Visitors got a peek into how decisions are made to prosecute some of the area's high-profile crimes. Deputy United States Attorney Matt Whitworth, who recently completed the grueling prosecution of killer Keith D. Nelson, described how his office evaluates cases brought by police agencies. He danced carefully around pointed questions about the prosecution of Kansas City pharmacist Robert Courtney because it remains a pending case.
Whitworth agreed with one visitor that prisoner appeals can be lengthy, but urged his guest to understand that appeals were part of the process.
"That's part of what makes our country great," Whitworth said. "We're protecting the rights of those who we're trying to lock up."
Guests also got a sense of the patience that police work requires. FBI agent Everett F. Barger III gave each of the visitors a look at a wanted poster he's been carrying for years. The bureau, he said, is still looking for art and antiques dealer Michael William Mechanick, who was charged years ago with selling drugs near the Country Club Plaza and Westport in 1985 and 1986.
Barger also took a moment to tell a woman the steps that her granddaughter should take to become an FBI special agent.
"We're looking for all sorts of people," Barger said.
Other federal agencies that participate in the tours on a rotating basis include the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Secret Service; the U.S. Public Defenders Office; and Pretrial Services. All the federal judges in western Missouri have been hosts for tours.
Joanne Nelson, who organized the visit for the Shepherd's Center, said the tour put names and faces to a system that can sometimes seem remote.
"It's so much more personal," Nelson said. "They give you their own personal viewpoints."
To contact Mark Morris, federal courts reporter, call (816) 234-4310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Protocol Respected; Published by Permission from The Kansas City Star, May 29, 2002