The 53-year-old man standing before the judge in an Indiana courtroom, recently, might as well have been holding up a sign that says: “Will go to jail for food.”
At a time when we are continually being told that the Great Recession of 2008 is behind us, that unemployment is down, that companies large and small are hiring again, and consumer confidence is on the rise, what David Potchen told Lake County Judge Clarence Murray wasn’t what the judge was expecting to hear.
As reported by the Post-Tribune and chicagotribune.com, Potchen, who was before the judge because he was accused of having robbed a local bank, told Judge Murray he would plead guilty to the charges — if he could be assured that Murray would give him the maximum sentence of eight years in prison.
The judge, to say the least, was, at first, intrigued, and by the time Potchen finished his story, the man behind the bench was deeply moved.
“I hope to God someone reads about this and offers some help to you,” Murray said, according to press reports. “You’re not a throwaway, Mr. Potchen. You have value, sir. I’m always optimistic and hopeful that there are still good people out there who believe freedom is important.”
Potchen’s story: The former welder, who had served two-and-a-half years in prison for a robbery in 2000, said he walked into the bank with a shotgun, this time, gave the teller a note demanding money, took about S1,600, walked outside, sat on the cub, and waited for police to arrive.
He was a desperate man and didn’t know where else to turn. He had been laid off from his $11-an-hour job at a rail car company, then lost the room where he was living in a local motel.
“I begged the guy don’t lay me off,” he said, according to published reports. He said he would forfeit his health benefits and not seek a raise, if that would save his job.
Things got so bad, he said, that he tried living out in the woods for a while, but just couldn’t take it anymore. “I couldn’t bear the thought of losing everything again.”
Now, there have been other cases, in other cities, of homeless people wanting to escape the frigid blows of winter, or mentally challenged street people seeking a safe place to crash for awhile, to get away from predators and others who hassle them. But in those cases, generally, such people might commit petty crimes hoping to land in jail temporarily, until they can figure out a better option.
But Potchen was insisting on the maximum sentence, because — being a convicted felon — he knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, for him to find (to his mind) a better long-term solution.
He had told the judge that, in his predicament, he felt like a throwaway.
His defense lawyer, Stephen Scheele, argued that his client just wants to work. “You have a fellow who is charged with doing something very serious,” he said, “but his motive by all appearances was not to rob this bank to enrich himself, but rather to put a roof over his head.”
Scheele said in a later newspaper interview that if a Post -Tribune reporter had not been in the courtroom that day, nobody would have heard about Potchen’s story. But as the paper, itself, reported, people all around the region did hear about it, and some of them wanted to come to Potchen’s aid.
Job offers started coming in from as far away as New Jersey, the paper reported. A shift supervisor for a company in Goshen, Ind., that manufactures frames for RVs, told the paper the company is always looking for good welders. “If they could arrange some kind of housing for him, I could carpool him in,” he said.
When asked why he would offer to help a man in Potchen’s situation, the shift supervisor said, “There’s a lot of ex-convicts in the world, sir. I had some legal trouble myself. But we’re always looking for people who want to work. We’ll see. We’ve got things to do if he wants to work.”
Offers of housing and donations of clothing followed. And after a considerable amount of complicated legal steps, including appeals to the parole board to release a hold on him, Potchen walked out of the Lake County Jail a few days ago.
We don’t know what kind of “end” this story will have, but, at least, there’s a happy “now.”
Apparently, Judge Murray’s optimism, belief in God, and his faith in the generosity of people who know a good cause when they see one, paid off.
Lake County obviously has a wise man on the bench. And the power of the press is not completely gone.