A southwest Virginia judge, in a decision that has proved personally embarrassing, last week said he would allow photographers in his courtroom. This week he had his picture taken as he presided over the case of a man who had parked in the judge's own reserved parking space.
In what is thought to be the first time in the state, a photographer has been allowed to snap pictures of a trial in progress: Pittsylvania County General District Court Judge F. Nelson Light hearing the traffic case of Julian E. Thomas, who pleaded guilty to parking his pickup in the judge's space.
The judge and the illegal parker were recorded by Steven Wingfield, a photographer for the Gretna Gazette, who showed up for the trial with his editor, Rodney Smith.
Judge Light had casually remarked last week that he wouldn't mind having photographers cover trials as long as they didn't use flash attachments and didn't disturb the decorum of his tiny Chatham, Va., courtroom.
"We thought it was an ideal time to test out the judge's ruling," Smith said yesterday. "We're going to keep taking pictures until someone tell us to stop."
The picture-taking incident -- as well as the case itself -- has sparked special interest because the Virginia code expressly prohibits taking pictures in the courtroom.
"He must be a laid-back judge," said an amused spokesman for Virginia Attorney General J. Marchall Coleman.
Judge Light, however, was apparently not amused when Thomas, a 39-year-old electrical contractor from Gretna, took his parking space last April. He fined Thomas $10 for illegal parking and another $18 for court costs.
"I just went into town on business, and I saw this big parking lot and just backed my truck up there," Thomas explained yesterday. "I wasn't looking much behind me, so I never saw the (reserved) sign."
Judge Light saw Thomas' pickup truck and wrote down the license tag number. A trooper, who never actually saw the truck parked in the judge's space, served Thomas with a summons three days later.
Thomas, who did not bother to retain a lawyer, said that was the first he knew of his unfortunate choice of a parking space.
Several troopers in the courtroom during the trial said later that if Thomas pleaded innocent, it would have been virtually impossible to try the case without the judge leaving his bench to take the witness stand. Even with his guilty plea, they said, Thomas had the right to ask for a more impartial judge.
Bringing in a substitute judge would have cost $141, part of which Thomas would have had to pay.
I figured it would be cheaper to pay $28 than $141," he said.
After the fine was levied, the Chatham Retail Merchants Association decided to repay Thomas, calling the judge's fine "unfortunate and in bad taste."
Judge Light, attending a judicial conference in Virginia Beach yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
Thomas said he's going to pay more ttention to where he parks his car from now on. CAPTION: Picture, Photo taken in courtroom shows Judge Light, imposing $10 fine on Julian Thomas.