The trial date finally arrived in early October, so I found myself in Orange County Courthouse defending myself against a peculiar accusation. Originally, the court docket had read indecent exposure but when the prosecutor approached the stand he announced that they were actually charging me with public nudity, a lesser misdemeanor. (Maybe the DA realized there wasn't any evidence that I had exposed my "private parts" to a female—N.C. indecent exposure law requires the presence of a person of the opposite sex.)
Back in July I had been skinny-dipping in the Eno Quarry and an overzealous park ranger spied me emerging from the water through his binoculars. Since the park was virtually empty, I expected him to give me a warning. I was appalled when Ranger J. Gwinn briskly dashed off a $150 citation, informing me that his department had been having "problems with nudity." He added that ticketing was part of an effort to "make the park service's presence known." I certainly felt his presence. Against the advice of friends, and perhaps my own better judgment, I decided to fight the charge and represent myself in court.
I have always found courtrooms profoundly dismal and gloomy. Despite this one's colorful murals celebrating the advancement of civil rights, it still had an oppressive atmosphere. The stories were grim—on the morning of my trial, they were scheduling a bond hearing for a man who was facing a hit and run charge involving a seriously injured blind woman and the death of her seeing-eye dog. Most of the people appearing before the judge had scarecrow-like postures: submissive and entangled in a system baroque beyond understanding.
Throughout the process the prosecution had treated me with thinly veiled condescension. How dare I presume to understand their profession enough to represent myself? I had the distinct impression that I was expected to prove myself a buffoon. I'm glad to report that my performance exceeded expectations. Despite the DA's objections and browbeating during my cross-examination of Ranger Gwinn, I was able to establish that there was no signage at Eno Quarry prohibiting public nudity. My case's nucleus was this point. N.C. General Statute 113-35 states that the Department of Parks and Recreation may make reasonable rules for the public use of state parks, but that these rules must be posted on the grounds. I somehow held my own against the bullying prosecutor who curled his hand into a tight fist. My hands were shaking by the time I ended my defense with a reading from the text of G.S. 113-35.
When the judge solemnly pronounced me not guilty, electricity spread throughout the formerly stony courtroom. There was applause—which was promptly restrained. I evenly thanked the judge and strode out of the courtroom amid a gallery of beaming faces. Our legal system is far from infallible, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect it to be, but this experience has shelled more than a few layers from my onion of cynicism.