A woman appeared in Judge Ray Long’s courtroom via videoconference from the Rock Hill jail at 8 a.m. Friday. And she was contrite. “I made a mistake,” she told the judge.
The woman was accused of shoplifting. She said she had three kids.
Long, 77, who sports a real white beard and an ample belly, wearing a red sweater on a day too close to Christmas for judicial robes, hung his head and cried. Long is by trade a Baptist preacher, a man for whom God is the only judge. Yet a court needs a judge, too.
And on Christmas in Rock Hill, Long is the judge. He looks like Santa Claus. He acts like Santa, too.
He knows who has been naughty and nice.
Long talked Friday of growing up the son of an alcoholic father. He grew up in a tiny mill house in Rock Hill, not 200 yards from where he holds court.
“Invariably, my father got drunk for Christmas,” Long said. “The old city jail on White Street? That was Christmas.”
He cried some more. Then he looked at the woman on the video monitor.
“Do your kids have a Christmas?” Long asked. “Gifts?”
The woman said yes.
Long gave out a personal recognizance bond to the woman.
“Take care of your children,” Long said. “I am going to be merciful.”
She cried out: “Thank you! And Merry Christmas.”
Long saw a dozen arrestees Friday as court wound up before Christmas. Men and women, accused mainly of misdemeanors, but a few felonies, too. One woman was caught with methamphetamine on her way to a substance abuse treatment center.
“I messed up,” the tearful woman said.
Long did not send the woman to jail. He made arrangements for her to be taken to treatment, where a bed waited.
“She needs help, not jail,” Long said. “She needs someone to be merciful.”
A man caught with simple marijuana possession was chastised by Long, who told the man that drugs would ruin Christmas for the man’s kids.
“My hope is that when you get out, you will say I listened to that old man, the judge,” Long said.
He again used the word “merciful.”
Those accused of more serious crimes received more serious treatment. Long, a county and city magistrate for 20 years, sternly told two young men accused of assault that he had better never see them again.
“I was at the Galleria, the mall, and this young man came up to me and said, ‘You saved my butt,’ ” Long recalled in a break between court hearings. “We bumped fists. As long as I can make a difference for these young people who have some good in them, I will do it.”
A last man came through, charged with simple possession of marijuana. The man admitted “doing something he shouldn’t of done.”
The man spoke of his 9-month-old son, and a gift he had on layaway, waiting to be picked up.
Long cried again, and sternly told the man that he had to be a better father, and should use his money for Christmas for the baby, not a bail bondsman. The man, 30, had no other criminal record, Long said.
Long stepped out of the room to call the store where the gift was on layaway. Long told the store manager that he would pay for the gift.
Long came back into the courtroom.
“Do you know what mercy is?” Long asked the arrested man.
“What is mercy?” the man asked. “I was hopin’ that you can give me some.”
Long, looking very much like Santa Claus, howled. He laughed until his generous stomach hurt. The man laughed, too. The clerk, Nadine Agurs, laughed, and even the lady officer in the jail laughed.
“Sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying,” Long said.
The man left with a personal recognizance bond to see his son.
Long, who will preach about mercy on Christmas morning at Union Baptist Church in western York County, closed up court. And then the Santa judge left to deliver a gift: $500 to a Clover restaurant that is serving the needy on Christmas.