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August 7, Saturday evening, at the Criminal Courts Building, 100 Centre Street in Manhattan. "Hey! Steve Pokart!" a woman calls to a lawyer waiting on the courthouse steps. They exchange jocular greetings: both work for the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Division, comrades in arms. But Stephen Pokart ’65 has years more experience than his colleague and is one of that rare breed: the career public defender. He has been a Legal Aid lawyer since 1974, and no one knows better than Pokart the rewards and frustrations of representing the poor in this vast city. Tonight he is pulling the night court shift, 4:30 p.m.to 12:30 a.m. It could be worse: the lobster shift runs till morning.

Two courtrooms are open tonight; by day 50 or 60 rooms are going. Painter Edward Hopper would have done justice to NYC night court: the somber judge staring into space, the shuffle of downcast and anxious prisoners, the overworked lawyers rushing between clients, and the bewildered onlookers in the benches, awaiting a loved one’s fate.

"Tonight there are about 300 people in the system," says Pokart. It’s an average of 24 hours before a person taken into custody is arraigned before a judge; 48 hours is the legal limit. Felony defendants kept in on bail can be held a maximum of six days unless indicted by a grand jury.

He points out the metal basket of folders, each representing a case. "On an average shift, I’ll handle six or seven felonies and some misdemeanors. Many will be drug-related." Most of his cases are plea-bargained. "I have to pick my battles carefully," he says. Last year he went to trial twice, an acquittal on a murder case and a hung jury on a robbery 2.

There are usually four to five Legal Aid lawyers working a shift, plus other public defenders and a smattering of criminal lawyers in private practice. Tonight Judge Bradley’s on the bench. Pokart thinks well of Bradley, who he says is fair and doesn’t cave in to prosecutors’ inflated bail demands.

A door at the back of the courtroom opens, offering a bleak glimpse of the pens, where the prisoners are held. We barely sit down before Pokart whips open a case folder: no time to waste. He briskly assesses: Mr. S is charged with robbery third degree, for allegedly stealing a piece of jewelry from a man lying drunk on the street. There are two witnesses. Mr. S has three prior felony convictions, two for robbery. Pokart scribbles notes, jumps to his feet, and slips out back to a row of interview cells. There’s a heavy odor of sweat and anxiety. "Mr. S!" Pokart hollers, to be heard in the pens beyond, and soon a door opens and an attractive young man with an earnest demeanor enters the cell and sits down.

A metal grate separates lawyer and client. Pokart hands over his card, asks what happened, and scribbles more notes while Mr. S swears up and down he was only helping the old guy, didn’t take a thing. . . .

A fast talker, nimble with legal details, Pokart in short order reviews the circumstances and gives Mr. S a dose of reality, about those three priors, how things are going to look to the judge. "There will be bail set," he warns, guessing an amount, and Mr. S clasps his head and moans softly. He’d hoped the fact that he has work putting up drywall, his best job ever, might help get him out that night. Now he’s stuck in jail, probably for months, perhaps for years.

Pokart hands the notice of appearance to the court officer, and now Mr. S is in line to see the judge. The case gets a yellow back, for felony; misdemeanors get blue backs. Pokart sits down, opens a fresh folder, speed-reading again.

Next case: Mr. J, charged with break-in and burglary in the third degree. A rod was stuck in the lock of a deli’s metal grate, and there was Mr. J, sitting curbside, in the middle of the night, when the police car pulled up. Mr. J has seven, or is it eight, priors, all felony convictions for burglary or possession of stolen property. A long list of aliases too. And he’s on parole. This does not bode well: high bail and the prospect of hard time loom. Out back, when Pokart cuts to the chase and urges full disclosure, to effectively represent him, Mr. J is forthcoming. He knows the legal drill, the terminology, and talks intelligently with Pokart about his prospects. "I can do two to four," he says grimly. "I can’t do fifteen." He squirts a packet of mustard on his sad-looking baloney sandwich. "Nothing good ever happens to me." One ray of hope: Pokart will seek dismissal of the burglary in the third degree charge, since there’s no evidence of a completed felony.

The night court assembly line bumps along. Folders keep plopping into the basket; Pokart grabs his share. He darts between tasks: scanning files, advising junior colleagues, heading for the cells, taking his turn before the judge, tending to matters in the courtroom across the way.

His cases are going as well as he could expect. The judge dismisses Mr. J’s burglary in the third degree charge. And reduces Mr. S’s bail from $7,500 to $2,500 when Pokart stresses his client’s employment and points out weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.

Before he joined Legal Aid, Pokart was a stage director. During the Vietnam War he put on musical and variety shows for American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, traveling by helicopter from one site to another. His dramatic talents still serve him well: his voice rings out in the buzzing courtroom, he is always at ease before the judge, and he is masterful at sketching scenarios to engage his numbed-out, confused, frightened, beleaguered, sometimes hostile clients.

Pokart spent his first seven years with the Legal Aid Society working in the Juvenile Rights Division, "mostly abuse and neglect cases." In 1978, he picked up the first felony case when the law changed to allow juveniles to be prosecuted as adults for serious crimes. He managed to get that case sent back to Family Court. But after a year or so, the judges wouldn’t go along. "Now it’s almost impossible to get the cases sent to family court, although the kids can often get probation in adult court."

At 9:30 p.m. it’s time for dinner, and Pokart and his colleagues head for Mulberry Street in Little Italy, where they talk shop and compare the quality of pasta here to another neighborhood favorite.

Back in court, the cases roll on, and the spectators’ faces grow wearier. There’s scared Mr. H, 20, nabbed for drunk driving, his first offense. His big worry: getting his car back. Next in the booth: Ms. S, busted by an undercover cop for allegedly acting as middleman in a drug buy. "As God is my witness, I did not do it," she pleads, while Pokart tries to focus her on the facts. Next comes Mr. P, accused of not paying for his meal at a restaurant. After delicate probing, through a Portuguese interpreter, it becomes clear to Pokart that his client is actively psychotic. This becomes a certainty when Pokart manages to elicit that the defendant used to run a company in Brazil that can make helicopter blades run backwards. Pokart promises to get the man out of jail. After Mr. P comes world-weary Mr. M, caught with a crack pipe, and even more discouraging, gaunt, hollow-eyed young Mr. V, who allegedly jumped a subway turnstile. The police found glassine packets of heroin in his pockets; he has a $60-a-day habit. Maybe the search evidence can be suppressed, maybe he will be sent to a residential treatment program he so far shows no interest in attending — or maybe this young man with multiple priors is bound for Rikers.

Steve Pokart will do his best to prevent that.

— Julia Collins

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