By Harry M. Covert
One of my favorite Alexandria judges is retired General District Court Judge Daniel Fairfax O’Flaherty.
Even though he’s been retired a long time, he presides regularly as a substitute. He’s a fixture and still has second-floor chambers in the Backus Courthouse on King Street. He’s a familiar face in surrounding jurisdictions, too.
As the General Assembly ponders the Alexandria courts, I’m recalling a January a few years ago when two Haitians from Harlem escaped jail and criminal records, because of an illegible note.
In early December 1998, two young Haitians took a wrong turn off Interstate 95 and ended up in an Alexandria apartment complex in Alexandria. They fell asleep in their car. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, police were called to a suspicious vehicle with two men inside. Residents of the complex were scared, figuring they were drug dealers, especially since their car had New York State license plates.
City police arrived, questioned them at length and didn’t like the several different stories as to why they were in Alexandria. One said they were “coming to Richmond,” the other said they were looking for Greensboro, N.C., and then said they were going to New York.
The boys, 20 and 21, were arrested, charged with trespassing and lying to police. Bail bonds were set at $25,000 each. For the next two weeks, they languished in the Alexandria Jail, hopeless to be released for Christmas with trials set for January.
At the behest of veteran Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Kimble who felt sorry for them, I went to the jail and interviewed them on the chance they were bondable. (Frankly, I figured it would be a nice Christmas fee for me.) I discovered one of the boys had $1,600 in his jail account. The other was penniless. Their families were unable to raise the $25,000 bond or the bondsman’s fee. They only person who may help was their church pastor.
I called the Harlem pastor. He confirmed that one of the boys worked in his church. The other, the one with no money, was dating the pastor’s daughter. “Both are good young men,” the pastor said. I explained they needed bail bonds to get out of jail, someone to sign for them (guaranteeing their appearance in court) and someone to send the money. I was the bondsman.
The pastor wired $2,500 bail money for one boy and $800 for the other. The boy with $1,600 scribbled a note to the sheriff’s property deputy giving his $1,600 to me. By the afternoon, the money was transferred for his bond release.
I put the note in their file, drove them to the bus station for the long ride back home to Harlem. I was hoping they would return in time for court as I remembered I was responsible now for $50,000 if they disappeared. But, they did appear for General District Court. Judge O’Flaherty was presiding, listening to the case with eyes closed, his white hair gleaming, and bright bowtie showing under his robe. He wasn’t asleep. The prosecutor’s evidence seemed pretty good. Public Defender Kevin Gaynor was working hard in their defense.
I listened. I was just happy the boys had appeared for court. To pass the time, I looked in the file. My ears perked up when the prosecutor asked for 12 months in jail. Suddenly, I realized in re-reading the file, that in the note to the sheriff’s property deputy, the boys could barely speak English, let alone write. I stood up and walked to the front, asked to speak with the Mr. Gaynor, the public defender. Judge O’Flaherty appeared a bit startled, didn’t challenge me, and agreed to my intrusion. I showed Gaynor the hand-written note, explaining these Haitians didn’t understand English very well and probably didn’t know what the policeman was saying.
The prosecutor saw the nearly illegible note and took it to Judge O’Flaherty. The charges were dismissed. I’ve always appreciated Judge O’Flaherty. He’s a wise man. He always pays attention to the cases. And, he’s always available if Chief Judge Becky Moore needs a substitute for the courts she administers.