See you in court

St. Armand opens new courtroom in town hall

St. Armand town Justice Francis Whitelaw cuts the ribbon on the “Honorable Russell G. Slingerland Courtroom” in the town hall on Friday while Essex County Conflict Defender Miriam Hadden, left, and Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague look on. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

BLOOMINGDALE — Applause echoed off glistening pinewood in the newly renovated second floor of the St. Armand Town Hall on Friday as town Justice Francis Whitelaw officially cut the ribbon on the “Honorable Russell G. Slingerland Courtroom.”

He’s been holding court up there since October but said the last railings were installed on Thursday, completing the project.

St. Armand town Supervisor Davina Thurston said for the first time since 1974, all of the town hall building is being used. Before this, court was held in the town board room. It was inconvenient and didn’t feel quite right, Whitelaw said. Thurston said people waiting for arraignment used to be handcuffed to chairs outside her office.

The new courtroom is a mixture of classic and modern tastes — with the rich textures and hues of wood, brick, leather and metal blending with the flat white of drywall.

The room looks so nice that Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague joked that people will want to come to court just to see the room.

St. Armand town Justice Francis Whitelaw and town Supervisor Davina Thurston stand at the bench in the new “Honorable Russell G. Slingerland Courtroom” in the town hall on Friday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

“True confession, I watch ‘Perry Mason’ every night with my wife,” Whitelaw said.

When they started planning the new court room, he wanted to create a “Perry Mason-esque” aesthetic. He bought decor and lighting himself and donated it to the town. He also sketched out the floorplan.

The aesthetics of a courtroom have psychological implications, Whitelaw said. He wants people to know they are in court, not just some room. He said he feels different in this room than in the town board room, where he used to preside, adding that he also sees attorneys acting different.

Even a couple defendants have commented on it, he said. But he tells them he doesn’t care for repeat business.

Whitelaw said he wanted to dedicate the room to Slingerland because he had been the town’s longest-serving justice. According to a town resolution, he served from 1982 to 2005, but Whitelaw said he personally knows Slingerland was on the bench before then because he stood in front of the former judge for a traffic ticket in 1980.

“It was not pleasant,” Whitelaw said.

Slingerland was very strict. Even at a four-by-four-foot card table, “he put the fear of God into you,” Whitelaw said.

Whitelaw and Thurston said this renovation was a “long time coming.”

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was the town clerk,” Thurson said. She was the clerk from 2012 to 2016.

Thurston said one of the first things she did when she became the town supervisor in 2019 was install a second staircase to have two exits. Then, the town went to the Essex County Planing Office and got $300,000 in Americans with Disabilities Act grants.

The town matched these grants with $75,300. Thurston said she saved up for a couple of years so they didn’t have to take out a loan and used some CARES Act money on the work.

The physical work started when Whitelaw showed up to the town hall with a hammer and a prybar and set to work doing demolition, which he said he’s good at.

“It was all plaster and lath, and the ceilings were peeling and falling down. Everything was pretty rough,” he said.

They found there was “zero insulation” on the second floor, which led to a lot of heat loss in the building, what Whitelaw described as “a lot of taxpayer dollars flying out the window.”

Lance Kriplin of Kriplin Masonry was brought in to fix the failing masonry but as the town found out, he’s a “jack of all trades,” Thurston said he took on the woodwork and other designs. He did a lot of the work himself. Kriplin said he had never done a courtroom before but it was a lot of fun. He moved to town from Saranac with his kids and said they enjoy living in town now.

When he started, Kriplin said the architecture was all an “institutional” looking “hospital green.”

The upstairs hadn’t been used in 50 years. Thurston said it used to be a place for kids to put on plays, and was a bit of a party room in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. But for decades, it was falling apart and the town just used it for storage.

Upstairs, is also a new, organized records room, paid for with a $32,000 records management grant Town Clerk Barb Darrah wrote.

The room holds an AED, a trauma kit and a Narcan station to reverse opioid overdoses.

Whitelaw said he hasn’t had to use the Narcan yet, but he described it as an “eventuality” instead of a possibility. Some of the people who come in for off-hours arraignments show up in bad shape, he said. Drugs are the biggest issue in town he sees.

According to Whitelaw, 90% of his criminal cases are directly or tangentially related to substance abuse. For a while, he had a peer counselor from St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Center embedded in his courtroom.

St. Armand holds court on Fridays and hears certain cases on Wednesdays. Whitelaw is also on call 24/7 for arraignments.

The second floor also has security cameras. Whitelaw said they already came into play a few week ago when police made a forcible arrest in a stairwell. They don’t wear body cameras in court, so without the town’s video evidence the account of the arrest would have just been testimonials.

The furniture in the courtroom came from state Justice Court Assistance Program grants. The benches for the audience were donated from St. Paul’s Church down the road, which closed last year.

Thurston said the construction was a “team effort” with town employees, contractors and volunteers pitching in.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today