It’s not often you hear that the course of an Aspenite’s life has, at times, been directed by the movements of human traffickers from China.
For Carolyn Jemison, the experience of dealing with the victims of such activities took her to places like the Sing Sing prison in New York and as far away as Guam. The locales had only one thing in common with her job as the clerk of the combined courts of Pitkin County: justice in a courtroom.
At the end of the month, after three decades in courtrooms and court offices helping judges, attorneys and frustrated citizens new to the legal world, Jemison is retiring.
She reflected Friday on her various roles, from entering traffic tickets — her first court job in Aspen in 1980 — to being the clerk of immigration courts and receiving an accommodation from the U.S. attorney general, an award she called the high point of her career.
Sitting on the third floor of the Pitkin County Courthouse, not far from where Ted Bundy escaped out of a window in the late ’70s, Jemison briefly discussed the disposal of the crowbar the serial killer used to murder Caryn Campbell outside Snowmass Village.
It was after his execution in 1989, and the goal was to avoid having the weapon fall into the hands of collectors of grisly artifacts, she said.
More recently, Jemison, 73, said she was proud that, earlier this month, she finally was able to rid the clerk’s office of exhibits that comprised cocaine and cash. The evidence, which she discovered in a long unopened safe belonging to the clerk’s office, was part of a case that had been up on appeal.
“You don’t send those types of exhibits up to the court of appeals,” she said. “You hold them. … Well, the appeals were over.”
So she asked Aspen police to take possession of the drugs and money in 2008. But it wasn’t a huge priority until Jemison decided she had to take care of it before she retired. And on March 7, five years to the day that she first made the request, an Aspen police officer took the few hundred dollars and more than 20 bindles of cocaine off her hands.
Jemison, a native of Detroit, has come to expect the unexpected as a clerk. In 1991, she left Aspen for a job with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., where she was the clerk of multiple immigration courts on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
“I did a lot of Amtracking,” she said.
Half her staff were interpreters who translated Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Russian, among other languages. Belying the notion of the lazy federal worker, in “the immigration courts, those people worked hard,” she said.
That included Jemison, who received an accommodation from Janet Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, for her work on cases involving Chinese immigrants who had been pulled out of the water near the Statue of Liberty a few years earlier.
She set up the judicial proceedings to handle 100 or so immigrants, a process that involved a rotating cast of judges, lawyers and interpreters. Attorneys for the immigrants ended up suing the Justice Department over issues of fair and speedy trials, but the government won the lawsuit when a judge ruled that Jemison and her boss had used proper procedures, she said.
Other hearings happened in legendary prisons like Sing Sing in New York, “places where water still drips down the walls.” Having earned a master’s degree in constitutional history made such prison experiences especially rich, she said.
“I’m walking into Sing Sing, for heaven’s sake. You’ve heard about it forever, and it looks like you thought it would, it smells like you thought it would,” Jemison said. “People look like you thought they would. Those bars slams behind you and you start walking down, it’s like being in a movie.”
In the late 1990s, Chinese traffickers figured out that dropping off the people they were smuggling at Guam, a territory of the United States, was cheaper than going all the way to Hawaii or California.
“Everybody knew this was happening, so they said, ‘We’ll set up a court,’” Jemison recalled. “So I got the job.”
Again she coordinated judges, lawyers and interpreters — people who flew in from the main land — to handle some 400 cases.
“We accomplished what we wanted to, but what I accomplished was [living] on a tropical island,” Jemison said.
She became a master scuba diver after completing 100 dives, an experience Jemison called “probably the high point of my life.”
“I would stay down there like Capt. Nemo if I could,” she said. “It’s a wonderful world.”
Jemison returned to Aspen in 2002 and worked at Explore Booksellers for four years before her old job opened back up.
“I thought, ‘They’re not going to want me back,’” she said. “It [had] been 16 years … but I know the job. So I applied and they gave it to me, like idiots.”
Besides infrequent adoptions or someone changing their name, people at the clerk’s office counter do not want to be there, a dynamic that puts daily stress on her and her staff.
“Everything else is either because you’re being sued, or getting divorced, or someone’s divorcing you,” Jemison said. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a problem.”
People with court business, be it a traffic ticket, jury duty or a lawsuit, “don’t know who to be mad at and you’re the only person in front of them,” she said. “That is the continual stress of the job. I don’t know how we do it, to tell you the truth.”
She takes pride in her staff and said she’ll miss them and working in a beautiful place. But she’s ready to retire in Cheyenne, Wyo., where she will be closer to her children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild. She said she’ll continue to pursue gardening, amateur photography and enormous jigsaw puzzles.
“I’ve liked everything I’ve done,” Jemison said. “I’ve been lucky.”