Lawyer Mary Conn was hurrying to keep a court date one morning last year when the wire-rimmed brassiere she was wearing triggered the metal detector at the entrance to Harris County's criminal courthouse. The security guards sent the lawyer through the electronic portal a second time, and for a second time Conn's bra set off the alarm.
And that set off Mary Conn.
The impatient lawyer informed the security supervisor that both his operation and his machine were, and we quote, "fucked." Although it is unclear how many times Conn employed variations of the f-word in her tirade, the lawyer claims that her protestations led deputy constable Fred Reyna to grab her from the rear, pull her hands behind her, handcuff her and slam her against a door.
"I told him he was hurting me and to let go of my arm," says Conn. "He just squeezed tighter." Reyna says he used reasonable force to subdue Conn, who he claims was causing a ruckus.
The April 1993 incident left Conn facing a misdemeanor charge of breaching the peace by using vulgar language. Last week, after three days of testimony in what will surely go down in courthouse annals as "The Great 'Fuck' Trial of 1994," a six-person jury deliberated for just 20 minutes before acquitting both Conn and the use of the f-word.
Justice of the Peace David Patronella had dismissed the charge against Conn last February, and the lawyer subsequently filed a still-pending civil rights suit against Reyna and his boss, Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia, the sheriff's department and the Wackenhut security agency. When the district attorney's office learned of Conn's suit, it refiled the charge against her. The case went back to Patronella's court for trial.
In arguing that Conn was being tried in retaliation for her lawsuit, defense lawyer Mike Ramsey tried to show that use of the f-word is so common in public discourse that it cannot be considered grounds for breach of the peace.
Ramsey, who represented Conn pro bono, even called this writer to the stand to confirm that the head of the office that was prosecuting the lawyer, District Attorney Johnny Holmes, was correctly quoted using a form of the very same Anglo-Saxon epithet in the December 8 Houston Press.
"If Mr. Holmes can use it, Miss Conn can use it," Ramsey argued to the jury. "What's good for one side is good for the other."
According to Patronella, the trial was the longest and most profane misdemeanor case ever heard in his court. It was also a glorious three days for that most reviled of four-letter words, which first graced the recorded language in a 15th-century English poem satirizing the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, at least according to the American Heritage Dictionary.
Back then the word was coded to protect sensitive readers.
Only the deaf could have avoided it in Patronella's courtroom, where the questioning and cross-examination at times resembled Madonna's last round of banter with David Letterman.
As word spread about the trial's subject, mischievous deputies and attorneys sauntered by the court to slyly ask waiting witnesses, "What the fuck are y'all doing here?" Raunchy jokes were the order of the day.
Ramsey had assembled an impressive list of big-shot criminal lawyers to testify on Conn's behalf, including Mike DeGuerin, Dan Cogdell, Ron Mock and Randy Schaffer, as well as state District Judge Joe Kegans. Some actually did take the stand to relate their version of the events that left Conn facing charges, while others testified as to the acceptability of the f-word in everyday conversation at the courthouse. As the trial dragged on some of the celebrities, such as DeGuerin, found more productive uses for their time, which is usually measured in hundreds of dollars per hour. Some, like Cogdell, stuck it out to the finish.
"The word 'fuck' is used around the county courthouse like punctuation," says Cogdell. "I've said it when trying to get through the metal detectors. My suspenders sometimes set them off."
Deputy Reyna didn't help his credibility by testifying that until he'd encountered Conn, he had never had the f-word directed at him in a conversation. Former assistant district attorney Jake Perret testified that during her time at the courthouse she'd only heard the word once in public discourse -- coming from a prisoners' holding cell..
That provoked laughter from Mock, who was sitting outside waiting to be called as a witness. "I can testify I have used the word 'fuck' with Jake, as in, 'What the fuck are we doing?' and she wasn't offended."
Thirty minutes before she took the stand, Perret had been regaled by Cogdell with a ribald story that ended with the f-word as a punch line. Cogdell related that he once broke his ankle and showed up for trial in Judge Kegans' courtroom hobbling in a cast and on crutches. According to Cogdell, Kegans was not amused and told him in a private exchange, "You want sympathy? Go find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis," before adding: "Now get the fuck outta my courtroom."
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Under Ramsey's sarcastic cross-examination, Perret admitted hearing Cogdell's tale.
As the trial wore on even prosecutor Greg Hale loosened up, and by the end of the proceedings seemed to be taking relish in repeating "fucking machine ... fucking people ... fucking arrest." By that point, one half expected the jury to return a verdict of "not fucking guilty."
But lest one think that the f-word is all you hear at the courthouse these days, Cogdell admits there are some limits to its use, even by seasoned attorneys.
"If there were 17 nuns and 19 schoolchildren around," allowed the lawyer, "well, no, I wouldn't use it.