No children allowed

All judges have their own rules for running their courtrooms. Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Karen Shreeves-Johns has one that’s immutable: No children allowed.

Children are a pretty common sight in Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center. Some are brought along by parents in hopes of seeing a spouse or partner in custody, on trial or about to be sentenced. Some are brought by parents or other relatives because child care is unavailable or unaffordable.

Some judges allow children in court but others question the potential emotional impact on a child watching a parent or relative in handcuffs or being hustled out of a courtroom by uniformed armed deputy sheriffs.

On Friday, Shreeves-Johns’ courtroom aides announced that no children were permitted in court before the judge took the bench and began running through her list of cases.  Several tween-agers in court with their parents for the sentencing of Kensington drug dealer Joseph McGrath, 27, who had pleaded guilty to soliciting the murder of a woman he believed led police to arrest him in a 2010 assault, were escorted out.

Later, when McGrath’s case was called, they returned to the courtroom to sit with McGrath’s parents and sisters at the request of defense attorney Robert E. Trimble, who wanted the family present to demonstrate support for McGrath.

Shreeves-Johns, now in her 11th year on the court, spotted the minors and erupted: “No children in the courtroom!”

“This is not a reunion. It’s not a happy occasion,” the judge said.

Once again, court staff escorted out the minors, as Trimble apologized and tried to explain why he asked them to be there.

“I think we are all getting a little too comfortable seeing children in court seeing people go to jail,” the judge said. “I don’t like it.”

As it turned out, Shreeves-Johns was not impressed with McGrath’s family support and told him she thought he was trying to manipulate her and the court system.

The judge reminded McGrath that he had enlisted one nephew, Nathaniel McGrath, 19, into the street life. The younger McGrath goes on trial Oct. 3 for witness intimidation and conspiracy for allegedly trying to pay off a man beaten and stomped by his uncle over a $50 drug debt -- if the victim helped get the assault charges dismissed.

And Shreeves-Johns sounded incensed after Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano played an audio tape of a prison call between McGrath and younger sister Barbara McGrath, in which he berated her in a string of four-letter words after she urged him to “get his life together and get a job.”

“The way you spoke to your family, the way you talk to your family – the very people who stand here before me to ask for leniency,” Shreeves-Johns told McGrath.

The judge then sentenced McGrath to 20 to 40 years in prison, a term that left McGrath complaining that had he would not have pleaded guilty had he known the prison term would be this long.