Blog of the Week: Cullen and Co.'s Courtroom Triumph

Cullen Murray Kemp

We won't waste much time with some big ceremonial intro. This story needs none of that. Well, except to say: Wouldn't you know that a caper like this would started over a few shrimp. That's a good Charleston story if ever we heard one. Here's to Cullen, Leon, Harry, and company for putting up your dukes. 



Leon's eyes had a tendency to gaze blankly, as if they were resting—tired from a long, hard life riddled with let-downs and losses. On this day though, the man’s eyes were alive—awakened, no doubt, by the prospect of spending the next 10 years of his life in prison.


As I do every morning, I covered my feet in furry slippers and ventured outside to feel the weather and to smell the downtown Charleston air. I don’t get a newspaper (mostly because I work for the Post & Courier and get a free one whenever I want). Plus, I have effectively reverted to getting the town news via word-of-mouth from my street friends.


This time, Spring Street was buzzing in anticipation of our friend Leon’s impending court date. Apparently, Leon had been busted a while back for trying to steal $8 worth of shrimp from a grocery store. As a repeat offender (Leon’s record is by no means a clean one), he was facing up to 10 years in prison for the petty theft. Admittedly, I have not known the man for a long time, but what I do know is he is not a violent, mean-spirited individual—just the opposite, rather.



Soon after catching wind of the news, Harry (who I wrote about in my street people blog) approached me with an uncharacteristically serious look on his face, “Big brotha, I need a favor.”


“What’s going on man?” I responded.


“Leon need yo’ help,” he uttered, and insisted the man does not deserve to die in jail for trying to take a few shrimp.


I agreed and told Harry I would do whatever I could to help out with Leon’s situation.


Within minutes Leon himself came around the corner wearing his coveted label-less blue cap and toothless smile. “Hey big Bubba,” he gleefully shouted my way, just as he would on any other day of the week. 


Leon, at 53-years-old, is hobbled by a variety of mental and physical disabilities. For example, a broken hip that requires him to maneuver Charleston streets with a cane. Despite Leon’s many misfortunes, he somehow maintains a positive outlook on life.


Before the man took his usual place on my street stoop, he placed his blue cap down first as a cushion—it was one of Leon’s simple routines. Once he was settled in, what seemed like the entire neighborhood stopped by to offer him courtroom advice.


“Ey Leon, suck on dis butter-scotch candy. It gon’ make you smell good to dat judge. I hears dey good luck candy too, now,” said an elderly man, passing along the candy.


Even the mailman wished him luck and offered his words of wisdom: “Leon, always call the judge yo’ honor,” he said, while handing me a few useless pieces of junk mail.


At 1:30 p.m. (a half hour before Leon’s scheduled court date), Harry, Leon, my two housemates, and I piled into my Toyota Avalon en route to the courthouse. “Leon, you ain’t never looked so damn good in yo’ life,” Harry said, pointing to the shirt and tie we had given Leon so he would look “court appropriate.”


Leon smirked and touched his necktie, “Well, I never wore no tie before…”


“Oh wait, yeh I did. I went to church when I was seven and mom made me wear one. I dint like it, so I neva put one on since,” Leon recalled.


“Boyyy, you crazy,” sputtered Harry as we all broke into laughter.


The scene was terrific—the five of us walked into the Broad Street courthouse like an unorthodox street gang.


Leon and Harry are both well into their 50s and street life has aged the men far beyond their birth age. Still, solely for entertainment purposes, the two men often revert to acting as if they are 12-year-old-brothers. Harry found the courthouse that day as fitting time as any to do so. Damn, it was a show!


At the metal detectors, Harry sized up the towering, white-bearded security guard. The guard gazed down at Harry’s 4’11’’ frame and snickered. Harry responded by throwing up his dukes in a 20s-style bare-knuckle boxing stance. Fighting back laughter, we ushered Harry along as he bellowed back at the officer.


While we searched for Leon’s courtroom, the two continued parading through the building—playfully hitting on younger women and talking to every stranger we passed. By the time we finally located Leon’s lawyer, all of our faces were cramped and our sides doubled over from the nonstop hilarity. The lawyer immediately piloted us into a small conference room, and the mood changed. We all realized there was a strong possibility Leon was going to do some serious time. Nervousness overwhelmed the five of us as Leon’s frightful eyes darted about the room. “Mam, I don’t wanna do no more time,” Leon warily muttered, referring to the 17 years he had served throughout the 90s and early 2000s.


The lawyer asked my two housemates and me to serve as character witnesses to Leon’s neighborly personality, and, of course, we obliged.


Soon enough, we were in the courtroom. We watched a case—eerily similar to Leon’s—get resolved with a five-year sentence for the defendant. “This doesn’t look good,” my housemate/Law & Orderaficionado whispered in my ear.


“Please approach the bench gentlemen,” a stern-looking court woman ordered.


It’s situations like these that have the power to render my effort to become a proficient public speaker irrelevant. The little voice at the back of my head warned me, “This man, who you care about, could potentially lose 10 years of his life for stealing a couple of shrimp if you can’t convince the judge he is a genuine guy.”


Needless to say, I was nervous when the judge looked at me and asked me to state my name and reason for being in court. I exchanged eye contact with Leon, Harry, then my two housemates and spoke: “Well, your honor, Leon has been more than a neighbor since we moved into our Spring Street home this past August. He has been a friend…”


As I spoke, I could tell that the judge, who was probably initially very confused at why three middle-class-looking white guys in their 20s were in his courtroom on behalf of a man like Leon, began to realize the type of person Leon was. He understood Leon didn’t see things like race, age, or class. He understood that Leon (and Harry) took it upon himself to welcome us to his neighborhood and make sure we were safe. He understood that Leon is, in his heart of hearts, a real, honest, and good person that has a soft spot for shrimp and may have just been hungry that day in the grocery store.


“Leon, I’m not going to give you any probation,” said the judge authoritatively.


Our hearts sunk because, first of all, Leon’s lawyer had told us before the trial that if everything goes well, Leon could possibly get probation, and secondly, the man before us who was facing the same sentence had been denied probation in the same manor… he got five years jail time.


“I’m going to give you 60 days minus the time you already served (60 days),” said the judge, who had to hold back a smile amidst our cheers.


Leon—realizing he would do no time for stealing the shrimp—looked over at us with a classic Leon toothless smile. I put a fist in the air to signal victory, and Leon responded with the same motion. This sent chills down my back.


“Man, yaw did good for Leon today. I ain’t never seen him so happy,” Harry cackled at top pitch before we even left the courtroom.


Although Leon would not see jail time, he had to be transported by the authorities to do a “turnover” at the prison. This meant that when we pulled back up to my house, we were Leon-less. Upon seeing this, the entire neighborhood (waiting on my stoop to see if we would return with Leon) grew quiet.


“How long he get?” asked Leon’s brother.


With a smile and a sense of satisfaction we responded, “He gonna be out tonight!”


The 'hood erupted.