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The New Bedford Superior Court House

The first week of summer 2010 was the last week of criminal court sessions in the second-floor courtroom at the New Bedford, Massachusetts Superior Court House (see Amicus Advocati Volume 1, Issue 4 on the opening of Fall River’s $70 million Justice Center).

Designed in 1828 by Tiverton, Rhode Island architect Russell Warren in the Greek revival style, construction of the courthouse was finished in 1831 about two decades before whale oil would make  New Bedford the wealthiest city per capita in the world.

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States was a nation in search of an identity. Growing sectarian disagreement over slavery and anti-British popular sentiment after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 compelled a cultural soul searching among America’s intellectual elites.

In their desire to shun the cultural domination of England and Europe, American intellectuals searched for a cultural declaration of independence to match the political declaration of 1776.

That Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would die within hours of each other on July 4, 1826 was cause for Massachusetts’ intellectuals to both mourn and celebrate American democracy.

Central to their desire to sustain a shared commitment to the ideals of America’s independence was their attraction to the then Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Seeing Greece’s current struggle as analogous to America’s own earlier struggle to free itself from the British Empire, they rallied behind Greece’s fight to restore democracy at the very place that had given birth to Plato and The Republic.

Greece inspired Boston, and then all of Massachusetts and America.

Greek antiquities, particularly its architectural ruins, were monuments to a political tradition that impacted everyone and everything in Jacksonian America.

In what came to be known as ‘Greek Mania,’  literature, women’s hairstyles and fashions, and even the names Bostonians gave to their sons and daughters alluding to the heroes and heroines of Greek Mythology, contributed to the idea of Boston as the ‘Athens of America.’

From Boston and then across the republic, American’s lived in Greek inspired houses and worshiped in Greek-inspired churches. They deposited their money in Greek-columned banks. Merchants paid their export and import taxes in Greek-columned customs houses.

New Bedford’s Superior Court House design was designed as a Greek temple to law and justice.

Architect Russell Warren’s wooden columns topped by double-scrolled Ionic capitals, the absence of adornment in the stark white framing of its doors and windows, its red-brick exterior, and the addition of a renaissance-inspired cupola most often associated locally with the early twentieth-century colonial revival ‘houses’ that mark Harvard University’s Charles River campus signify a uniquely American transitional architectural style, an American architecture imbued with the cultural belief in a more perfect union.

The portraits of the nineteenth century jurists adorning the second floor courtroom of the whaling city’s Greek temple have looked down upon some of the most storied and notorious cases in American criminal law.

In 1981 Raymond Patriarca, the reputed boss of organized crime in New England,  was arraigned there for allegedly ordering the 1968 murder of a bank robber Patriarca believed would testify against him. Recovering from heart surgery at the time, Patriarca was wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher. The case was later dismissed when the court ruled he was medically unfit to stand trial.

In 1989 former New Bedford attorney Kenneth Ponte was arraigned in the courtroom after a grand jury indicted him in connection with the murder of one of nine drug-addicted women whose bodies were found along Interstate 195 from Southeastern Massachusetts to the Rhode Island border between July 1988 and June 1989. The charges were subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence. To date the crimes remain unsolved.

In 1993, James Porter, a former priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, pleaded guilty in the courtroom to 41 counts of sexually abusing 28 children during the 1960’s. Sentenced to 18 to 20 years in state prison, the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal led to the resignation of Boston’s Archbishop Bernard Law and a Pulitzer Prize for the Boston Globe.

But the greatest repercussion from Porter’s acts was the crisis in faith for Roman Catholics across America.

But it was in the late nineteenth century, when decades after the discovery of petroleum in rural Pennsylvania led to the demise of whale oil as the economic engine that both fueled New Bedford’s economy and inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick, that the courtroom forever earned its place in the annals of American criminal law.

On June, 5, 1893 a 33 year-old woman was tried and 15 days later acquitted for the murder of her father and step-mother with a hatchet.

In an era when women were considered the ‘fair’ and ‘weaker’ sex, and when the notion of a woman killer was unheard of, the trial of Lizzie Borden was a media sensation.

Today we are all weary of the notion that any trial is noteworthy enough to be labeled the ‘trial of the century.’

But The Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. Lizzie Andrew Borden certainly earns that sobriquet in the annals of the impact of technology on society.

By telegraph and by telephone, the trial of Lizzie Borden was covered by the Associated Press, providing America and the world with same-day coverage of the trial.

One key piece of the prosecution’s case, the record of the inquest conducted by District Attorney Hosea Knowlton, was ruled inadmissible.  Borden’s attorneys successfully argued that she was denied access to counsel during her interrogation.

No doubt the Borden case is one of the earliest instances where the American public would learn thanks to the press and to telegraph and telephone the accused’s right to have an attorney present during questioning is sacrosanct, a right made clear by the United States Supreme Court in 1963 in Gideon v. Wainwright.

June 2010 was a good month for Fall River, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney Douglas Darnbrough.

Mid-month, a bench trial before New Bedford Superior Court Judge Richard Moses resulted in a “Not Guilty” verdict for Darnbrough’s client, a Fall River man accused of possession of cocaine and a firearm.

One week later, Darnbrouigh was quoted in the Fall River Herald-News as the city and its legal community celebrated the opening of Fall River’s new Justice Center, an $85 million technologically state-of-the-art courthouse providing badly needed 153,000 square feet of work space for the administration of justice for the Bristol County Superior Court and Fall River District Court.

It is this courthouse where former New England Patriot’s tight end Aaron Hernandez bail hearing was held last summer after Hernandez was charged with the murder or Odin Lloyd.

The LEED certified courthouse houses court rooms paneled in eucalyptus wood. Each courtroom is equipped with digital audio and video recording systems.

The courthouse was built to supplement an earlier renovation of Fall River’s original B.M.C. Durfee High School into probate and housing courts. Fall River District Court Sessions as well as trials for the Bristol County Superior and the probation departments for the Superior and District Court are now house under one roof at the Justice Center, a five story glass and Quebec limestone building designed “to last 100 years”, according to David Cole, chief engineer for the trial courts.

Until Fall River’s Justice Center opened, lawyers like Darnbrough spent a good part of their court days ferrying case files among three overcrowded courthouses in Fall River, two courthouses in New Bedford, and one courthouse in Taunton.

Darnbrough told the Herald-News that practicing criminal law in Fall River was also difficult for witnesses as well.

“As a Fall River lawyer it was tough. My witnesses are usually local. It is tough to get them to travel, even when I was taking them there myself.”

While the end of the commute from courthouse to courthouse and from city to city was a welcome change for Darnbrough and others, Cole the engineer pointed out at that state-of-the-art audio and video technology in an acoustically smart 21st century courtroom requires a 21st century demeanor.

“The designers has acoustical consultants come into the rooms and figure out all of the rebound points,” Cole told the newspaper.

“You can hear everything in these courtrooms.

“A conversation in one corner can be heard across the room,” said Cole.

“We warn them about that.”

The Los Angeles County Courthouse was completed in 1958. For a quarter-century Los Angeles County had no dedicated courthouse structure after the previous courthouse was substantially damaged in the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake.

Conceived as part of the 1947 Civic Center Master Plan, the mid-century design of the courthouse is devoid of exterior architectural detail but noteworthy for its terra cotta relief sculptures representing Truth, Law, and Justice by sculptor Donal Hord, and a terra cotta sculptural grouping by sculptor Albert Stewart representing the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Magna Carta, and the Declaration of Independence.

The dearth of adornment continues into the entrance lobbies with interior columns clad in blue-green mosaic tile.

Designed to last 250 years (according to its architects), the courthouse was part of the urban renewal transformation of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill.

In 2002, the courthouse was named in honor of Judge Stanley Mosk, a justice on the California Supreme Court and previous Attorney General of California.

From exterior shots of the courthouse on television’s Perry Mason, to the site of the double-murder trial of O.J. Simspon, the courthouse is an iconic cultural representation of law and justice.

In 1979 the courthouse was the scene of Marvin v. Marvin, commonly referred to as the “palimony” case.

In 1972 Michelle Triola Marvin sued her ex-companion, Academy Award winning actor Lee Marvin after the actor stopped making $800 per month voluntary payments to her after he ended their live-in relationship in 1970.

Because California did not recognize common-law marriage, the trial court granted Lee Marvin’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and denied Michelle Marvin’s motion to amend her complaint.

The California Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court decision reasoning that Michelle Marvin’s relationship with the actor had no standing in any California court because the relationship was based on sex.

A subsequent appeal to the California Supreme Court in 1976 set a precedent in the state (and the nation) when the court upheld the right of unmarried persons (in a state that did not recognize common law marriage) to sue for property division when the relationship ended.

The California Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts were in error when it denied Michelle Triola Marvin’s motion to amend her complaint.

In an 11-week trial in 1979, Superior Court Judge Arthur Marshall heard testimony from both Marvins and from friends and acquaintances including actors, gossip columnists, agents, studio executives, and stuntmen.

In his ruling, Marshall rejected Michelle Martin’s claim, but awarded her an “equitable remedy” of $104,000, reasoning that Lee Marvin should rightly pay “so that she may have the economic means to re-educate herself and to learn new employable skills.”

Marshall’s award was overturned by the California Supreme Court in 1981. The court ruled that there was no basis in law for the award.

The significance of the Marvin case is that the California Supreme Court acknowledged that unmarried couples were no longer stigmatized regarding their relationship and had a right to sue regarding any expressed or implicit contract between lovers.

United States Federal Building and Courthouse, Anchorage Alaska

With construction commencing almost two decades before Alaska became the forty-ninth state, the Federal Building and Courthouse in Anchorage represented the federal government’s commitment to the economic progress and development of the territory. 

Definitively modern in its absence of classical adornment, architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed a utilitarian building to house every federal agency with an office in Anchorage. Building construction commenced in 1939, but even before completion in 1940 it was clear that the building would not be large enough to accommodate all of the federal agencies in Anchorage. An addition was completed in 1941. Following congressional organization of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, a court facilities addition was completed in 1958. 

The U.S. General Services Administration historic buildings survey notes that “the most significant interior space” of an otherwise unornamented building “is the original federal district courtroom” which “features an oil-on-canvas mural titled Alaskan Landscape.” 

It was in this courtroom in 1977 that U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Plummer ruled on the admissibility of plaintiff’s “certain motion pictures” in Grimes v. Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company. The Grimes decision established an authentication standard for the admissibility of film and video, ruling that the deposition of filmmaker Robert Stern was sufficient verification that the film was not rehearsed, that no special camera effects were used, that the film was not edited, and that the film accurately portrayed what Stern observed while making the film. 

Almost four decades later, the Grimes decision remains a watershed in the growth of legal video in the United States.

Rhea County Courthouse and Museum

“An unmistakable aura of historic presence pervades it” is how one commentator describes the Rhea County (Tennessee) Courthouse. A blend of Romanesque Revival and Italianate design, construction of the courthouse commenced in 1890 after the seat of country government was transferred from the town of Washington to the town of Dayton. Designed by the Knoxville architectural firm of W. Chamberlin and Company and built by contractors William Dowling and J.R. Taylor, the courthouse was opened in 1891.

From July 10 to July 21, 1925 it was the scene of the trial of school teacher John Thomas Scopes, tried and convicted for teaching Darwinian evolution in a public school in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching in any publicly funded schools—including the University of Tennessee. The anti-evolution proscription was the law in Tennessee until it was repealed in 1967.

The courthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. A $1 million restoration project in 1978 returned the second floor courtroom to its original appearance during the Scopes trial. A museum in the basement houses trial memorabilia, including the microphone used in the transmission of live broadcasts from the trial.

In late July the courthouse hosts Dayton’s Scope’s Festival, which includes a re-enactment of the trial.

You can find out more about the festival at

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