Reality, Not Reality TV
Retired couple find themselves in court every week

Reprinted with permission - The Gazette / Montgomery County (Oct. 27, 2009) Copyright © 2009 The Gazette. By Jason Tomassini, Gazette staff writer.

It's an unseasonably hot fall afternoon, and like many retired couples, Ed and Harriett Neufeld need something to do to pass the time.

"Do you want drug distribution or armed robbery?" Harriett, 77, asks Ed, 79, as they plan their afternoon in Rockville.

"Whatever you want, honey," Ed replies hurriedly before running back to the couple's car to drop off his jacket. His wife pores intently over the day's docket at the Montgomery County Circuit Court.

The Neufelds aren't some kind of geriatric Bonnie and Clyde deciding on their next crime. They are, as they put it, "the 13th and 14th jurors." Every week, the Neufelds leave their Leisure World retirement community in Aspen Hill for their favorite hobby: watching lawyers argue real-life court cases as defendants' lives hang in the balance.

Evidence"It's better than television, I'll tell you that much," Ed said in their apartment last week, starting their day as they usually do, working crossword puzzles over coffee before making their weekly trip to court.

For the past 14 years, since Ed retired as a civil engineer, the Neufelds have watched nearly 1,000 court cases for their own entertainment. Their post-retirement hobby derives from their courtship in New York City when both were in their 20s, and Ed was looking for a cheap date. Because courtrooms are open to the public, they would walk into night court after work and see real-life court drama.

Bringing murderers, rapists and drug dealers into a courtship was a risky move for Ed, but Harriett, an aspiring lawyer at the time, "thought it was a wonderful idea." They've been married for 55 years.

Last week, after a morning spent watching the sentencing of a murderer's accomplice and then a wealthy couple settling a messy divorce, they decide a drug-distribution case would be a nice way to spend their afternoon.

On the car-ride home after the trial broke for recess—the trial was not exciting enough for the Neufelds to stay for the outcome—Ed and Harriett held their own version of jury deliberation.

Ed took the defendant's side: From 14 feet away, the officer could not have made out that $10 bill, he said. But Harriett believed the officer and decided to prove it from the passenger seat.

"You couldn't see this from 14 feet away?" she asks, pulling a $20 bill from her wallet and holding it in the air.

"No! Not the brown spots!" Ed shoots back in his excitable, halting voice.

Earlier in the day, after wandering the courthouse peering into rooms to see if any proceedings looked interesting, they found a divorce case under way, although they thought it might be a criminal case. Immediately upon sitting down, Harriett starts deciphering the facts of the case.

"So far I've got a doctor and possibly some money laundering," Harriett whispers from the front row, the couple's preferred seats so they can clearly hear all of the court proceedings. "There's money that should be taxed, but he's using it for something else."

"Someone's stealing money," Ed says bluntly, providing the abridged version of Harriett's more analytical approach.

While on the surface, it appears the Neufelds find real people's legal matters to be trivial, there are moments throughout the day that present the reality of what's going on in front of them.

One such moment is Harriett's cell phone going off while a teary-eyed mother pleaded to a judge to give her son, who drove the getaway car in a murder, a lenient sentence. Instead of hisses and dirty looks from the people around her, like she'd get in a movie theater, an armed guard rushes over to tell Harriett to turn her phone off.

But during that same testimony, Harriett's eyes well with tears as the defendant's mother breaks down when describing just how hard she worked to keep her son out of trouble.

"I felt really bad for his mother," Harriett later said.

"When you sit there, you see these people are on trial for their lives," Ed said. "Not necessarily life and death, but just the prospect of spending 10 or 15 years in prison."

"I can't imagine that," Harriett said, shuddering.

Both Ed and Harriett had an interest in law, but no formal training. Ed thought it would be a safer career choice to become a civil engineer. Harriett wanted to be a litigator but was dissuaded by family members who thought the legal world was "not a place for a woman." She ended up studying business administration.

So now they are making up for lost time. In addition to attending the court cases, the Neufelds proctor the Maryland State Bar Exam occasionally. Harriett will soon begin volunteering with juveniles going through the justice system.

For nine years, Ed volunteered with the Montgomery County State's Attorney's Office as a "case screener," interviewing officers, witnesses and family members to help prosecutors prepare for trials.

"Ed carried as much of a case load as any law student," said Barbara Morales, the intern coordinator for the state's attorney's office.

After the case involving the murderer's accomplice, Ed had a brief chat with an old "boss," Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Chaikin, for whom Ed had previously screened cases. They immediately began reminiscing about old cases, like the doctor who forged his certification so he could see women in their underwear.

"Ed solved that one for me," Chaikin said as Ed laughed.

Ed is modest about his evolving knowledge of the legal system, but in between his self-deprecating humor and his gregariousness in the courthouse—everyone from security guards to high-ranking prosecutors gave Ed a hug or a handshake throughout the day—he will occasionally slip into lawyerspeak.

"That guy who copped a plea is in a dangerous place, because the guys he ratted on are gonna kill him," Ed noted while analyzing the case of an accused murderer's accomplice, who agreed to testify against the shooter.

Ed's enthusiasm for law shines through during his armchair analysis. Even though he often calls them "actors putting on a show," he speaks glowingly of the judges, the lawyers and the county court system.

"I love this place!" he says out of nowhere while strolling through the courthouse halls. "This is what America's all about.

"Liberty and justice for all."

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