Nowhere in the world will you find more dedicated fathers than in a courtroom on sentencing day. Give me a break, Your Honor; my family needs me. Please have mercy, Your Honor; I've got a little one on the way. Everyone is Dad of the Year on Judgment Day.
On Sept. 14 in Williamsburg-James City Circuit Court in Virginia, Judge Samuel Powell finally got tired of sitting atop his perch and nodding like a magpie. Alfred Gabbin, 20, stood before him looking at five years for possession of drugs, and he wondered if Powell might go easy. His girlfriend was due any day, and he wanted to be there for his child.
Powell, who's lost count of the dads who ran for the hills at the sight of the first dirty diaper, couldn't hold back. "Have you thought about marrying your girlfriend?" he asked, waking up everyone in the courtroom. Being a parent is more than dropping off an occasional check, Powell went on. So if you want a break, show me a commitment.
Was the judge offering a choice between marriage and jail? And if so, which was the heavier ball and chain? Gabbin wasn't clear on what the judge was saying, but if he was going to be held prisoner either way, he preferred the deal where you sleep with the warden.
"You're in the right building," said Powell, 55, noting that marriage licenses were available downstairs. He gave Gabbin five years but suspended the sentence on the condition that he get drug treatment and a job. And seriously consider marrying his girlfriend and raising their baby together. "For 18 years, you'll be tied down. I can't give any longer time than that."
The Dr. Laura tic half-surprised Powell himself. But for 14 years, the first seven in juvenile court, he has presided over a revolving door. Kids he once saw in juvenile court, without dads, now appear before him as absent fathers, and he's seen far too many moms struggling alone. A few defendants later, he was at it again.
Tyrone Harris, 23, appearing in shackles and orange jumpsuit for sentencing on a probation violation, begged mercy because he wanted to take care of his girlfriend and baby boy. Powell wondered if wedding plans figured into all this love and devotion.
"Your Honor," prosecutor Brian Wainger interrupted, "how do we know the girlfriend wants to marry him?"
"She's in the courtroom," defense lawyer Pat Kelley said.
"Bring her up," Powell said, asking Sarah Derham, 21, if she wanted to marry Harris. Yes, she said, they'd been planning to get hitched. To show they meant business, they started hugging. And before you knew it, they were making out. It was Judge Wapner meets Love Connection.
Powell gave Harris a suspended sentence too, warning that if he's ever back before a judge, it had better be a marrying judge. A couple of days later, the Virginia Gazette ran the headline WHEN MARRIAGE IS A SENTENCE. And then a truly amazing thing happened, as far as Powell was concerned.
No one complained.
"I got a ton of calls, all supportive. I thought I'd at least get heat from single parents saying marriage isn't for everyone," Powell says. Or from someone questioning the wisdom of tying women and children to guys with criminal records. So what about it, Judge?