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VOL. 40 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 21, 2016

Throwing mercy on court, if not its defendants

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One of my I Swear Crossword test-solvers – a male musician from San Francisco by way of New York City – wrote, with regard to the current puzzle, “I don’t think I understand the quip.”

My other test-solver – a woman copy editor from Ann Arbor by way of New England – wrote, “Funny couplet!”

Actually, the guy also wrote that he was familiar with the saying “I want to throw myself on the mercy of the court.” Thus, he asked, “[T]his is a malapropism?”

So, they both got it. She in one way. He in another. Collectively, their comments nudged me to write this column.

In 20 years of running a high-volume criminal court in which people are charged with violations and misdemeanors (no felonies), on a few occasions I have actually had someone say to me, “I want to throw my mercy on the court.”

When I heard it the first time, in late 1997, I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew that a verbal miscue had occurred. I could tell from the speaker’s facial expression, and other nonverbal indicators, that he had no idea he had misspoken.

I didn’t want to embarrass him. Thus, I glossed over it. I ignored the inherent humor of the imagery – a defendant’s hurling at the judge an intangible blanket made of forgiveness in lieu of punishment.

And I resisted the urge to correct him. As in, “Don’t you mean that you want to throw yourself on my mercy?”

I was polite. I went forward with the proceeding as though nothing were amiss. But later … not so much. For, if this could happen once, I reasoned, then it well might happen again. And I wanted to be ready next time around.

I wish I could remember specifically how I came to treat the defendant’s in-court remark as the first line of a rhyming couplet. Perhaps there was something in the rhythm with which he said the words.

Perhaps I was channeling some archetypal childhood energy – the ultimate game of pitch and catch – caught up in the visual image conveyed. If someone throws me something, on receipt thereof, shouldn’t I at least make use of it?

Whatever the specifics, a few months later I wrote a song for my mother– a ditty entitled “Deep Docket Blues.”

By then I’d thought up the rest of the couplet. By the time I first sang the song, the second occasion of someone saying this in court had occurred. At least, I think it had. But if not, then chalk the lyric up to poetic license:

I had a case just the other day

And I heard a young man say,

“I want to throw my mercy on the court.”

I said, “Throw a lot, we’re a little bit short.”

That’s how judges get confused.

In all honesty, the few times that I’ve said “Throw a lot we’re a little bit short,” it has gone completely over the defendants’ heads. Because they haven’t a clue anything they’ve said is amiss in the least.

Ah, what bliss there is not knowing.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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