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Transcript: Protecting Public Safety: Inside the Courts with Fiona Apple and Carmen Johnson

MS. METTLER: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post live. I’m Katie Mettler, a criminal justice reporter here at The Post, and today I’m joined by Carmen Johnson, director of Courtwatch PG--that stands for Prince George’s County in Maryland; and one of her court watch volunteers, Fiona Apple, the Grammy Award winning musician. Carmen, Fiona, welcome to Washington Post live.

MS. JOHNSON: Pleased to have--thank you.

MS. APPLE: Thank you.

MS. METTLER: It's so good to see you both. I've been writing about you and your friendship for two years now, and I'm just really excited to share your story with our broader Washington Post Live audience today.

Carmen, let's start with you, and let's go back to the beginning. Courtwatch PG was launched in 2019. How did you first get involved?

MS. JOHNSON: Yeah, Courtwatch was launched by our executive director of Life After Release Miss Qiana Johnson, and so she tried to get me involved back in 2019, but I was not ready mentally. I had just came home myself from a sabbatical with the injustice system. And so, then she--you know, she, you know, kept plaguing me, and then finally, I agreed. So, I came on February 4, 2020, as a court watcher, and I learned everything that I needed to learn from her. And then, once she realized that I was a fast learner, she gave me the full autonomy to grow Courtwatch to what it is today. So, I owe all of that to Miss Qiana Johnson.

MS. METTLER: And, Fiona, when did you first hear about Courtwatch, and why were you drawn to becoming a volunteer?

MS. APPLE: Well--as my dog starts making noise in the background--well, I got into Courtwatch because I had participated in the campaign called Gasping for Justice, which was when we were able to read declarations from people who were being caged inside of Prince George's County Jail during the pandemic, and it was to let people know how horrible the conditions were there. And after I read that declaration, I couldn't get it out of my mind. And then I guess, because I participated in that I got on some list. And I got an email from Courtwatch PG saying they wanted volunteers, and you know, immediately it just--it made sense, even before I really understood what it entailed. It made sense that like, yeah, when people are having their worst day at their most vulnerable, at the very least somebody, you know, be there with them, be a witness, don't let them go through it alone, and take a look at what's going on because you don't know what's going on inside there. They keep it all secret. So, I just thought that that made sense, and I signed up and then met Carmen and stuck around.

MS. METTLER: Now we're here. Now we're here.

One of--actually, one of my favorite elements of Courtwatch PG is how it brought the two of you together in friendship. And, Carmen, I'm wondering if you can talk about that first day. I know you do trainings, you've done hundreds of trainings now, but talk about that first day when Fiona quietly popped up on the Zoom to be trained with you.

MS. JOHNSON: So, well, first of all, she did not--her email does not say Fiona Apple. So, that's the first thing. And so, when she came on the screen--because I was a fan of hers, you know, back in the 90s and I used to play her music over and over again, so when she popped up, I looked and so I politely got up from my chair and I went over into my living room and then I googled her. I'm like, that can't be her. And I googled her. And then I screamed in my hand, like a little 15-year-old high school kid, and then I came back, fixed my clothes, came back and sat down. And I said, hello, Miss Apple. And she said, hello, Dr. Johnson. And then, this big old smile just came over both of our faces. It was just like magic. It was like, I met my lost sister, you know what I mean? And that's how it began.

MS. METTLER: Fiona, I'm curious, from your perspective--oh, I'm sorry, Carmen.

MS. JOHNSON: She's been with us ever since.

MS. METTLER: Fiona, from your perspective, maybe share a little bit from that day, and also how your friendship with Carmen that began when you--when you hopped on that Zoom has really fueled your drive, you know, over the last two years to be a court watcher?

MS. APPLE: Yeah, well, from my perspective, I was--I was just embarrassed. I was not expecting to be recognized at all in that setting. And so, of course, my first thought was like, you know, when she said she had to go and google me, I'm like, yeah, of course you did, because I look like hell and I probably didn't look like anything. Anyway, but, you know, she--I looked--I did that orientation with Carmen and Edwan [phonetic], and I loved it. It all made sense.

And then, you know, the thing about Carmen--I love you, Carmen. I love you so much. She's just such a great leader. You know, she's--she does something that I haven't seen a lot of people do in this world, which is that she's just completely honest about what's going on with her. And she has this amazing ability, this balance with like--with all the people that she's leading in Courtwatch, that she's our leader, and we look up to her and we respect her. But we also like--we want to take care of her. She's our--she's our sister to, you know? We're like family. And she--and we--it's like that because she's--she shows her vulnerabilities, and she shares how this--how being incarcerated and how having that BS done to her has affected her to this day. And we all know how hard it is for her to go through all this stuff, because it's so triggering.

And I mean, she just wrote a book. She just wrote a great book, and she spent--she had to go through every bit of that memory. And that's just so traumatizing, but she did it so she can share her story with everybody. And she does this work that is so hard for her, because she wants to help other people not have to go through what she went through. So, it's just like Carmen is really like the heart for me, you know, of this whole experience because she is my loved one. You know, I see what she goes through, and it makes me furious. She's such a wonderful person, and she's just so caring and so giving and, you know, she's my sister. And she cracks me up too. And she's just--she's just--she's a great boss and a great friend and great sister.

MS. METTLER: Now, everyone else understands why your friendship is part of my favorite part of Courtwatch PG.

Carmen, in 2020, the pandemic upended the legal system and forced courts to go completely virtual. Explain the impact that the pandemic had on your work and your Courtwatch team.

MS. JOHNSON: Well, the first thing I thought was at that time, it was no big deal to have like anywhere between 60 to 75 cases in one day. And I was thinking, oh my God, these loved ones are going to be behind the wall all of this time. Like, you know, what are we going to do? And everybody was trying to figure out--the judges were trying to figure out, the defense attorneys were trying to figure out the state's attorney--everybody was trying to figure out what to do.

And then all of a sudden, mysteriously we get this Zoom--well, me or Kiana got this Zoom link, and we're like, what is this? And it was Zoom access to get into the courtrooms, and it changed our life because then we realized how important virtual access is opposed to actually going into the courtrooms. So, it changed our lives.

And you know, we have a lot of court watchers that have disabilities, and they're unable to hear and so now they can see the mouths of the defense, the mouths of the assistant state's attorney. Of course, they can see the judges. They can see what's--they can read lips and see what's going on, which makes it very, very important. Not to mention, you know, loved ones are now able to--you know, to not have to take off work, but go to their car or go into a private room and be able to support their loved one that's standing before the judge to get out. So, you know, Zoom, a platform like Zoom access absolutely changed the whole thing based on covid. Covid was a gift in that way.

MS. METTLER: I just want a point of clarity. You know, you and Fiona both keep using the phrase "loved one" as you talk about the people who are going through a court system. I'm wondering, Carmen, if you can explain why you all use that phrase, "loved one" instead of something like defendant.

MS. JOHNSON: Because defendant is a negative term. And so, you know, they are--they are human beings that are dealing with this system. Whether they're guilty or innocent, they're still human beings. And so, as far as we're concerned, defendant is negative. That is a very negative word. All organizations out there that represent reentry and all kinds of stuff like that, you need to stop using the word "defendant," because that's a horrible word, an ugly word. They are our loved ones. They are people. They are men, women, youth that are caught up in this ugly web of the injustice system.

MS. METTLER: Thank you for that.

Fiona, you have been helping to fight for a bill in Maryland that would cement online access to courtrooms into law. Why is this so important for you?

MS. APPLE: People need to see what's going on. It's our right to see what's going on. It's kind of ridiculous that we have to work so hard to get this legislation, because it's our right, it's available, it's the right thing to do. There's other places that do it. And you know, this is--you can't fix things if you don't know what's going on.

And it's like, you know how you were just talking with Carmen about how we call them loved ones and we don't call them defendants because everything is designed to make you think that these are not people; this is just like some like conveyor belt of items going by that you just have to figure out which box or which cage to put them in, you know? And these are people and they're individuals, and everybody has a story. And you know, any one of us could be in that situation. You don't know.

It's good for everybody to have an understanding of how the courts work. Why shouldn't we be able to go in and look at that? It affects everybody. What happens in bond hearings actually just affects communities and affects generations. And it seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but it's not. And so, you know, we just--it's really kind of simple, you know? We just want to be let in because we're supposed to be let in. We have the right to be let in.

And also, because there's lots of people that want to go to court that can't make it to court that have disabilities, you know, that don't have the time to make it to take off work. And that's really important for people. That's important for loved ones. That can mean being released or being kept in a cage before your trial. And if you're released, you can participate in your defense. If you're in a cage, you can't help yourself at all. You're kept in there; they don't let people talk to you a lot and you're tortured in there, you know? So, it's important to keep an eye on these things. And you know, we can't--we're not going to be able to do anything to change anything if we can't see what's going on.

MS. METTLER: Part of the reason, you know, you all first started advocating for this legislation last year during the Maryland legislative session--and I know Fiona, for you, the reason you've been able to participate in Courtwatch PG, even though you live on the other side of the country, is because of this virtual access. So, what do you think is at stake? What might happen if this legislation to protect virtual access doesn't pass?

MS. APPLE: Well, what will happen is that things will just keep on going on like they have been going on, and that's not acceptable. People need to get in on this. People need to know what's going on. And you know, if they took--I mean, they took the Zoom access away. I can still call in from where I am, but the audio is really bad. We just--I'm sorry, what question am I answering?

MS. METTLER: No, just what's at stake if the legislation doesn't pass? I mean, obviously for you the only way you can participate is virtual access. So, one consequence would be that you wouldn't be able to be a court watcher in Prince George's anymore.

MS. APPLE: Right.

MS. JOHNSON: They gave us audio. They gave us audio that like Fiona was just saying sucks.

MS. APPLE: They did. They gave us audio. But really, it's sort of like you're trying to write things down and they're like [affects muffled voice]. And then when the loved one's family speaks, they don't have a mic at all. You can't hear anything they say. Anyway, so.

MS. METTLER: Okay, thank you.

Carmen, yesterday The Washington Post published an exclusive story about your involvement--and, Fiona, yours too--in launching a nationwide court watching network. Carmen, what have you been able to learn from connecting with other court watchers and court watch organizations across the country?

MS. JOHNSON: Well, we've been learning about the different things that they go through in terms of, you know, fighting to be able to get into the courtrooms, fighting to be able to have Zoom or some type of remote access, fighting to deal with, you know, judges that have--that are driven by ego opposed to law, prosecutors that are given very, very ugly paintings of loved ones that are not factual. And even defense attorneys, some defense attorneys that are not doing what they are supposed to do in order to get the loved one out. Let's be clear.

And we also are learning about how different statutes and codes work in different states, you know, in the country. So, we're learning different languages. We all are learning from one another. But most importantly, we are building a loving--I said, loving--peaceful army group of people that all we want is justice. That's all we want. We don't want no fights. We don't want nobody to go to jail. We don't want any of that. And I damn sure don't want to go back to jail. You know what I mean?

And so, just fighting for the rights that belong to the people is what this National Courtwatch hub is going to do. And it's also going to give safety, make the other court watch organizations around the country feel safe and feel like they have an army, a peaceful army, group of people loving behind them.

MS. METTLER: Fiona, many people have never sat in on a court hearing before. I spent a couple of weeks in 2020 sitting in with you all and observing bond hearings. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I'm wondering if you could walk us through what a day of court watching actually looks like, and then how you take that information that you collect and translate it into the accountability work that you all do.

MS. APPLE: All right. Well, I mean, for me, as a court watcher, the beginning of the day is just, you know, looking on the--on our signal chat and seeing the docket, looking up the cases that are on the docket on case search to see what the charges are, to see if they have probable cause. We have a spreadsheet of bad cops, or cops that have been on the "do not call" list and also, we are named in the Graham Report, which is a report that named cops that were cited many times for racial harassment and excessive force, stuff like that, bad traffic stops. We're keeping track of, you know, the cops that run together, looking at the statement of charges.

So, you look at the case search, you look at the spreadsheet, you look at for--you look for little signifiers for, is there going to be a flag here? Does this look like it could be a bad stop, an unconstitutional stop? Or you look at, wow, this person is in jail for theft of something under $100 but he can't get out because look, the commissioner gave him a $1,500 bond. How the hell is he going to pay that? So, you know, you'd flag like things like that.

So, you do the pre work. And then--and then when it comes around 1:15 Prince George's time, 10:15 my time, you call in to the courts with your notebook. I've got--I mean, I got notebooks like this that are just, you know, filled, filled, filled, filled, filled, filled. And you just write down everything you hear. You write--and then at the end of the day--you know, and for me, I've got my little yellow highlighter. So, when something weird happens, I put that right there to make a note that's a flag--at the end of the day, you know, you write down everything you possibly can. And then, at the end of the day, you meet up with your team for that day, and you have a debrief, and you just go through all of the cases and you talk about them and you talk about what went wrong, what was unfair, what should have happened, what could have happened, what somebody didn't listen to.

I mean, it's amazing how it changes every day. I court watched yesterday actually, and I've got to say, I was so impressed with the judge. It was our favorite judge, of course. But--you know, who I'm talking about, Carmen. But you know, he--was actually the--I was like sitting there going, wow, he's, taking a long time to look through things. Sometimes things--sometimes you go, oh, people are trying to do something good. I'm sorry to say most of the time it is not like that. You know, it is really not like that. The judges do not listen to the public defender's tell the individual story of what's going on. It looks like they're reading what the cops wrote while the public defender is talking. So, I'm not remembering what I'm answering anymore.

But oh, yeah, I'm answer what happens with the with the court watch day. And then we will write up our data forms after we do our debrief. We clarify what we're going to flag. We write up our data forms. We send them in. And then, the accountability team looks at them once every two weeks, and then they write a bunch of letters based on what we flagged. They talk about it, too. So, there's a lot of levels the process.

MS. METTLER: And those letters then go on—

MS. JOHNSON: And yes, judge--

MS. METTLER: Oh, I'm sorry, Carmen, go ahead.

MS. JOHNSON: And I was just getting ready to say that Judge Heffron is one of our favorite judges. We love him so much. And we wish that the other judges--and you know, we wish that they was like him. He's a wonderful judge.

MS. METTLER: Well, I think that's an important thing to highlight, as I've talked to you both about before, and the other court watchers on your team, Carmen, that accountability letters aren't just to point out when things are going wrong, but also to highlight when people are doing the right thing. And when they are treating people with respect and, like you said, Fiona, really taking the time to pay close attention.

Carmen, there's been some criticism, I know, that not every court watcher has deep knowledge of the law. They're not necessarily lawyers or trained in the law. I know you do training with everyone. What kind of requirements do you think should be involved in being a court watcher, and what sort of training do your court watchers get?

MS. JOHNSON: Well, they need to have integrity, number one. They need to be honest. They need to be--while they're in court, they need to be emotionless [phonetic]. They need to be able to listen without any emotions. They need to be able to multitask. They need to be able to think clearly. And some of our court watchers are retired lawyers, you know, and some of them are, you know, are retired doctors and things of that nature. We have a lot of professionals that work with us.

But the biggest thing is having integrity. That's my biggest thing. You know, seeing what you--what you see, seeing rightfully, hearing rightfully, you know what I'm saying? And we do have a lot of training that's involved, because there's a lot of steps that you have to go through. Not to mention, we also keep data; we have a database that we keep all our data in. And so, you know, we have different--like, we have a lot of court watchers, but some of them can't court watch, but they can sit on some of our committees. So, if they are skilled in data, like we have a database committee, then they are able to, you know, help with the data. If they are writers, then they go into the accountability committee.

But we have--it's a different array of people that work with Courtwatch PG with different skills. And just about all of our court watchers are emphatically professionals, not to mention we do have 11th graders and 12th graders, and we do work with law students around the country, around the country. That's why this Zoom access, remote access is important, because we work with law schools around the country. This is important.

MS. METTLER: Part of the launch of this nationwide court watching network this week was a short film that explains what court watching is all about. We saw a bit of that video in the intro earlier in the program. But, Fiona, you wrote an original score for it, and I'd actually really love the audience to hear it. Let's take a listen.

[Clip plays]

MS. METTLER: Fionna, can you talk to us about why you decided to write some original music for this video.

MS. APPLE: Well, I just blurted it out one time. I've got a big mouth sometimes. I was in a meeting. We were talking about trying to get a grant to make this thing. We were talking about the budget. We went up and Scott Hechinger mentioned that we would have to hire somebody to do some music. And I went, oh, maybe we could save some money, and I'll--you know, me and the band can do some music. And then, you know, of course, I was like, I don't know how to do that.

But, you know, I just--I watched the video, and I played piano along to it once and then just built around it. So, you know, it was an experience, but it was done with love. And you know, I just felt like I want to contribute whatever I can do. You know, I'm like--you know, and we've got lawyers that work with us that can teach us things that can always give us information. So, it was nice for a moment for me to be like, oh, I have something that I can actually offer here, you know?

MS. METTLER: And lots of people are excited to hear it. You know, Fiona, you've talked about court transparency in the past. You talked about it the day you won the Grammy for "Fetch the Bolt Cutters," which actually I listened to while I was writing the story that published yesterday. And you've joked in the past, actually, that you've done more press for Courtwatch than you did for that album. Why have you decided to use--why have you decided to use your platform in this way to advocate for court transparency?

MS. APPLE: I mean, it's simple. It's a--it's a really important cause that I absolutely, genuinely passionately believe in. And the fact is that, you know, if I can help, I want to help. You know, I honestly hate doing stuff like this.

And I know Carmen and I, you know, all three of us who've been freaking out before doing stuff like this. And I always do. I won't do it for my own music. It's not worth it. But for this, this is important, you know? And if I can somehow help just a few more people click on something, then, yeah, it's--then I want to do that, because this is really such an amazingly elegant solution to a lot of ills. You know, just get the people in at the--in on this, get people in on the process. Let us all see. Let us work together. Let us make a giant network, a giant neighborhood, a community across the nation that we help each other and that we know what's going on, that we know what's going on in our world. Don't let them keep it secret. Don't let them make people numbers anymore. Let's care about people. Let's look at individuals. Let's do what we can.

MS. METTLER: Carmen, where do you see the practice of court watching 5 or 10 years from now? What comes next?

MS. JOHNSON: The next is building up this national court watch collective. That's the next thing. And you know, with the help of my teacher Qiana Johnson and my good friend--and he's also a teacher--Scott Hechinger was zealous--we can create something really, really huge across the country. Because mass incarceration is happening, and it's not stopping.

And now at this point, they're starting to look at our youth. And so, we need, like I said, an army of loving integrity people that are creating court watch organizations around the country, and also bringing in court watch organizations to stick together and fight battles together, and do it in love and peace and unity, support--we the people, for the people. We just want justice.

MS. METTLER: Fiona, you've talked with me before about this sense of community that you have felt with the people in Prince George's County, even though you live on the other side of the country. I'm wondering if you can talk about what kind of impact you hope this national network will have and what you hope people will do and feel if they start court watching themselves.

MS. APPLE: Well, yeah, for--yeah, what I really--I just--what I really hope is that I hope that there's court watches in every county across the nation, and I hope that there's people watching bond hearings, watching whatever hearings they're able to watch, and doing help in real time as much as they can. I've talked before about how we can like, help people get medication checks, or we can help people get emergency bond reviews.

And Qiana Johnson, who is amazing leader and she's so just like forward future, we can do this, she's just great, she--you know, she gives us a directive to alert her about Black mothers who are in jail. And it feels you know--and then they--Life After Release, if you send them information about somebody who's being kept who should not be in--they should not ever, none of them should be--but if you see somebody who's being kept in and she's a mommy, write to Qiana and Boom [phonetic] and you write them a letter, and then they look into it and they take care of stuff. They're so powerful and so impressive.

And I have to say, you know, anybody out there who's like hearing me talk about court watch and the process and it sounds like, oh, that sounds like tedious or that sounds like boring or that sounds like the kind of work that I'm not into, believe me, it's great work to do. And if you feel like you can't do it, just give it a try. You don't have to actually fill out forms right away. You take as much time as you need. And Carmen helps you to figure out when you feel like you're ready to start filling out forms.

This is such a supportive community. If you want to meet good people and feel more agency in your life and feel like you can actually do something about all the crap that's going on in the world, this is a great way to do that. It's just--it's a great--I don't--I'm trying not to curse because I feel really passionate about it because it's just really great.

MS. METTLER: Well, to save you from yourself there, Fiona--and actually, I think that's a lovely note to end on--we've run out of time. So, I think we're going to have to leave it there. But, Carmen and Fiona, thank you so much for being with us today.

MS. APPLE: Thank you, Katie.

MS. JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

MS. METTLER: And thanks to all of you for joining us as well. To check out what interviews we have coming up, please go to where you can find more information and register for those events. I’m Katie Mettler. Thanks again.

[End recorded session]