PAINESVILLE, Ohio - It is a most unusual court in that the judge who sits on the bench may break into a comedy routine, depending, of course, on the severity of the crime.
Judge Michael Cicconetti, the only jurist in the municipal court in Painesville, a community about a 35-minute drive from downtown Cleveland, has been known to break into a comedy routine if statements made by defendants are too far-fetched to believe.
"I want the defendants to talk to me and if they're afraid to talk and tell me what happened, I can't find out what happened in the case," said Judge Cicconetti. He made the statement during a time where there were no cases before him and he relaxed in the gallery of the court. He was without his robe as he sat with a smile
However, when his court is in session, he is all business, although there are moments those who witness his actions wonder whether it is court a comedy club. Still, his comedy has purpose and is generally praised by the citizens of Painesville. Cicconetti believes speaking the language of the everyday person can often get to the truth better than some of the legal terms that can not be easily understood by the defendants who stand before him.
If a defendant, facing a drunk driving charge, tells the judge he had only one drink although a police breathalizer test shows he consumed far more alcohol than that, Judge Cicconetti may reach behind him and pull out a giant martini glass that could hold a gallon of liquid and put it in the face of the defendant.
"One drink?" the judge might ask. "You blew a 0.21 and the only way you had one drink is if you had this glass filled with alcohol."
The judge's lines are delivered with precision as if he were a standup comic. In many ways, he is although through his lines, there is strong respect for the law. However, he is quick to explain if he can help a defendant see the error of his or her ways, and the crime was not severe, a different kind of sentence might help. He is about teaching lessons.
For one person convicted of drunken driving, he sentenced the person to view an autopsy of a person who was killed by another drunken driver. With permission of the family of the victim, Cicconetti sent the person who escaped such a serious situation to view what could have happened.
"I don't think you'll ever find one person who left the courtroom who didn't understand why I gave them the sentence I gave," said the judge as he reclined in a seat in the courtroom gallery, which, during court hours, can be filled with those charged with violating Painesville ordinances.
Ciconnetti, 62, has been on the Painesville Municipal Court bench for 20 years hearing cases of violations of city ordinances and traffic citations. The heavier charges go to higher-level courts. Ciconnetti has developed a nationwide following by his unusual sentences. For the woman who dumped and abandoned a dozen kittens in the woods, he handed her a sentence of spending the night in the woods herself.
The woman was guarded by several uniformed law enforcement officers who kept her in sight, but she shivered in the night air in the Lake Metroparks woods. In that case, the judge overruled himself later that winter evening after local meteorologists predicted just how much the temperature would drop. He ordered officers to bring the woman in from the cold.
"I do make a few mistakes," said Cicconetti in an interview. However, usually, his unusual sentences are generally accepted by Painesville residents and even people beyond this Northeast Ohio community. Cicconetti has appeared on several national television shows, talking about his unusual sentences.
It is not every defendant who receives such treatment. Cicconetti estimates only a half-percent of the defendants who are convicted in his courtroom receive the special sentences. Those who do must be first-time offenders of non-violent crimes who show remorse. Without remorse and admission of guilt, the penalty is usually several days or weeks in jail.
The judge has had his critics, but the complaints don't seem to bother him. "The criticism that I have comes from me because at the time, I do what I think is right and I love with it."
The judge moves easily throughout Painesville and its population of 19,500. Shunning a necktie, even in court, he is likened by many as the guy next door. At Silvestro's Restaurant on Railroad Street, when he enters, he is met with hugs and friendly greetings.
"He's a good guy," said Pam Morse, who embraced the judge before he could find a seat at the restaurant.
One of the photographs on the wall is of a group of men. Cicconetti is in the center of the photograph, beaming back at the camera. "That picture was taken 35 years ago," said Cicconetti, who is known my most people simply as Michael.
"Drop the judge handle," he tells anyone who calls his by his title outside the courtroom. Inside the courtroom is a different matter. Although there are humorous or near-comedy elements at times, he takes the