It took the Chattanooga gangbanger about two seconds to realize he had mouthed off to the wrong judge.
General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom was presiding over a preliminary hearing on April 16 for attempted murder suspect O’Shae Smith.
Smith made a reference to a public housing development known as East Lake Courts, calling it his “hood.”
What happened next was captured on video by television station WRCB and has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people since.
Judge Statom admonished the gang member with a heaping dose of Southern-flavored righteous indignation.
“Sir, East Lake Courts is not your hood,” she told Smith. “It’s the citizens of the United States who own that – because they work and pay taxes. You don’t own that.”
Judge Statom is Judge Judy with a Southern accent.
“It used to be a very nice place to live,” she said. “In fact, my grandmother lived there and I spent many a night and it was a nice place where you could walk around. People like you have made it a violent, unsafe place to live, and hopefully we can make it the place that it used to be back when it was originally built for people who didn’t have anywhere else to live, to make it a safe place to live.”
That’s what folks from Tennessee call a “Come to Jesus” moment.
But this particular suspect wasn’t the smartest fellow in his “hood.” He decided to mouth off to Her Honor, and Judge Statom was not in the mood for any of his nonsense.
“I don’t think you want to say a word to me, Mr. Smith,” she interjected.
And he wisely thought the better of it.
Chattanoogans were thrilled with Judge Statom’s tough talk and flooded the television station’s website with comments.
“Get ’em, lady,” wrote one viewer. “It’s about time someone said something.”
“If we had more judges like her, all this gang activity and violence would cease to exist,” wrote another.
I spoke to Judge Statom by telephone the other day and she seemed genuinely surprised that her courtroom lecture had been seen by nearly 500,000 people. In modern parlance, Judge Statom has gone viral.
“I have been totally shocked,” she said. “I try not to say too much too often – but I do get really frustrated when people in our community are not working and are not contributing and yet they are committing crimes against others.”
Statom, a native of the Scenic City, is a career prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2012 by Gov. Bill Haslam.
And while she is generally soft-spoken inside her courtroom, there are moments when the judge will provide advice from the bench.
“Sometimes I do give short speeches to people in domestic situations,” she said. “I say things like, if he beats you up, he doesn’t love you. I also tell them to get an education. A man is not a plan.”
And then there was Oshae Smith claiming that East Lake Courts was his “hood.”
“That struck a nerve that he was claiming that was his property,” she said. “There are a lot of people that live there that are law-abiding citizens.”
But it is also an area plagued with gang violence.
“They are bringing crime into those communities,” she said. “It’s so unfair for people who have to live there.”
Judge Statom said she could tell that the gangbanger was nonplussed by his legal predicament.
“He was standing there like it wasn’t affecting him in any way,” she told me. “I thought – he needs to know that gang members who go into communities like this are really affecting the people who have no choice but to live there.”
She acknowledges that her lecture probably won’t have much of an impact on the street thug – but she said what she wanted to say.
But when he tried to respond – she laid down the law.
“He raised his finger up and opened his mouth to speak and I had already decided he was not taking control over my courtroom,” she said. “I had already told him if he decided to speak I would let the prosecutor cross examine him.”
“So do so at your own peril,” she told the defendant.
O’Shae Smith will eventually have his day in court – but one thing is clear.
“At some point and time he will have to answer for any crimes that he commits,” Judge Statom told me. “But he doesn’t get to wreak havoc on our community.”
The good people of Chattanooga can rest well knowing that Judge Statom is on the bench, administering justice with a drawl.