As the remaining judges milled around the hall in Grand Wayne Center, they smiled and used words like “amazing” and “wonderful.”
They shook hands and hugged each other, bidding farewell to their colleagues as the Indiana Judicial Conference closed for the year.
The last speaker they heard, the one that brought smiles to their faces and made them rise to their feet, was the Rev. Bill McGill, whose typically alliteration-filled address with its black Baptist cadence took up the last half hour of their morning.
Tapping the podium as he spoke and bouncing on his toes, McGill helped the nearly all-white audience know when he expected a little call-and-response.
They were slow to catch on to that. But his message clearly came through.
Thirty-four years ago Friday, McGill himself became a felon with a mischievous, and criminal, check he handed to a teller at an Ohio bank. He left with money, which he handed out to various charities.
“I handed a teller a check made payable to The Poor People of America and told her it was not a joke, because far too many of our citizens were walking around broke,” McGill rhymed as he spoke. “I carried no weapon nor wore a disguise because I felt my arrest would prove to be a social prize, but when a judge sentenced me to serve 2 1/2 to 20 years in the Ohio State Reformatory needless to say I was surprised.”
The anniversary of that date, when he himself became an offender, made the speech all the more meaningful for him.
“(Thirty-four) years ago today I was designated a public offender; when I arrived at prison another inmate called me a public pretender; but now all around the country I’m recognized as a moral and social public defender,” McGill said.
A pastor at Imani Baptist Temple, McGill is also the executive pastor of One Church-One Offender, a faith-based alternative sentencing program.
In his career as a minister and activist, he has had breakfast with a president, met Archbishop Desmond Tutu and now helps keep offenders on the straight and narrow.
He urged the judges to not become cynical toward those who appear before them, even repeatedly.
“Turn your courtrooms into places where not only justice is received but where people’s destiny is retrieved,” he said.
“Develop a reputation for not only being stern but for being a judge that wants people to make a positive turn,” he said.
As he wrapped up his speech, those in the auditorium broke out in hearty applause, standing in admiration for the offender before them.