From courtroom to bathroom: When lawyers plead for relief


A public defender’s allegation that she had an accident after a DeKalb County judge denied her urgent requests to take a bathroom break has many area lawyers wondering: Would I stay or would I go?

Attorneys provided differing takes, with some saying they’d try to tough it out and others saying they’d bolt from the courtroom.

Lawyers are pondering such uncomfortable thoughts in light of court filings that allege Chief Judge Courtney Johnson denied public defender Jan Hankins’ repeated requests to use the restroom, resulting in Hankins having an accident at the defense table during a murder trial in June. Johnson has said it was the result of a miscommunication and questioned whether the accident really occurred.

A courtroom deputy’s account, written in an incident report, appears to back up Hankins’ version of what transpired. The state’s judicial watchdog agency is investigating the incident, which raises questions about civility and courtroom protocol.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bill Morrison, who’s been practicing more than 30 years, said he’s never seen a judge deny a lawyer’s request to use the bathroom.

As for what he’d have done, “I would have gotten up and left the courtroom before I urinated in my feet. I would have dealt with the fallout later.”

The fallout could include a contempt citation. Maximum punishment: a fine of $500 and 20 days in jail.

It’s a terrible dilemma, Morrison said. “Obviously, (Hankins) felt like she couldn’t get up and leave. You know, it’s hard enough to defend your client in a murder case up against the District Attorney’s Office. Then to have something like this happen? Fortunately, it’s very rare.”

Marietta criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant said she wouldn’t have left the courtroom.

“You don’t leave your client alone in court without a lawyer,” she said. “A witness could say or do something and you wouldn’t be there to object or hear what the testimony was.”

In his report, the courtroom deputy said he saw Hankins try to get the judge’s attention as she squirmed in her chair. And after Hankins wrote in big letters, “Bathroom” on a legal pad, the deputy passed a note to Johnson telling her the lawyer needed a bathroom break. But the judge said Hankins could wait, the deputy wrote.

The jury had to have been distracted by what was going on, Merchant said. “There’s a reason why this shouldn’t be happening. Everyone is supposed to be focusing on the testimony and the evidence being presented in court.”

Page Pate, an Atlanta criminal defense lawyer, agreed with Merchant that any lawyer who bolted from court, absent permission from the judge, would be flirting with a contempt citation.

“It’s a terrible thought,” Pate said of such a predicament. “But I think if I really had to, I’d whisper to my client I had to use the bathroom and go outside, take care of business and deal with the repercussions later.”

But courts also have to deal with such repercussions later. “A lawyer could be found to have given ineffective assistance for leaving the courtroom,” Pate said. “There are also appellate court rulings that address cases when a lawyer or the client wasn’t in court when witnesses testified on the stand. Some ordered new trials.”




Next Up in Local

Cops: Man shot in Gwinnett McDonald’s drive-thru
Cops: Man shot in Gwinnett McDonald’s drive-thru

A man was shot in the drive-thru of a Duluth McDonald’s early Saturday morning, a police report says. READ | Cops: Smiling man gets $9,400 from Gwinnett bank with forged check The victim and a woman were in the drive-thru lane around 6 a.m. on Feb. 17 when they saw a man walking “suspiciously” in the McDonald’s parking...
Pro football coach dies at 89; CFL legend lived in North Fulton
Pro football coach dies at 89; CFL legend lived in North Fulton

In the days before the NBA’s Raptors and MLB’s Blue Jays, Leo Cahill helped the Toronto Argonauts reign supreme among Canadian sports fans. He battled for the spotlight with the NHL’s Maple Leafs by winning and luring top-tier talent to the Argos and the Canadian Football League from the late 1960s through the 80s. On Thursday...
DeKalb pays former CEO Burrell Ellis $1.1 million for defense costs
DeKalb pays former CEO Burrell Ellis $1.1 million for defense costs

DeKalb County taxpayers paid a final tally of $1.1 million to reimburse former CEO Burrell Ellis for the legal fees he incurred defending himself against charges of corruption before his conviction was overturned. That amount is roughly 50 percent higher than the payout amount initially anticipated by the Board of Commissioners, which signed off...
Court upholds young mother’s conviction for killing newborn
Court upholds young mother’s conviction for killing newborn

The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday upheld the murder conviction of a 26-year-old Athens woman who stabbed to death her newborn son just minutes after she delivered him in her bedroom. The court wrote that Cassandra Norwood’s right to remain silent was not violated when she “freely and voluntarily” told the police twice that she had...
Topgolf-like facility set for Marietta after city OKs $9.5M land sale
Topgolf-like facility set for Marietta after city OKs $9.5M land sale

Eventually, you might be able to consume food and adult beverages between trying to hit a tiny ball as best you can indoors in Cobb County. Marietta spokeswoman Lindsey Wiles said the city approved the $9.5 million sale to Drive Shack of 17.18 acres along the Franklin Gateway Corridor, which is billed as a neighborhood amid a large...
More Stories