Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From the Mouths of Babes...

Today I met my first client at 9am in court, as she'd been called in for failing to meet with pretrial services after posting bond in a DUI case. The judge was compassionate, but warned her that she was "trying the patience of the court," as she had turned a relatively small problem into a much bigger one First she was charged with DUI, then she failed to appear for diversion, then failed to appear for court (she pleaded to both of these charges before hiring me), and was finally charged with failure to appear again.

So, to not appear at pretrial services was indeed "trying the patience of the court." Fortunately, however, the judge knew a little of my client's story, as almost everyone does in the small town where both she and the judge grew up. Two days before Christmas last year, her father and 15 year old brother were struck by a train at an icy railroad crossing. Both were killed, leaving my client with her mother who is currently on house arrest for conspiracy to distribute both meth and cocaine.

She's doing well now, but I have to find a way to keep her spirit up and "plug her into the appropriate professional, as well as amateur, sources of help such as psychiatric services and A.A. if she decides it's appropriate.

We said goodbye, agreeing that she would meet me at my office later to cancel a warrant in that county for giving false information as well as, you guessed it, failing to appear in court. As I drove, I thought of something to say in court at her next hearing: "I went into criminal defense thinking I would save the innocent from being convicted, but I ended up spending more time trying to save them from staying addicted. A lot who were addicted were also afflicted, with amazingly sad stories or mental illnesses that either grew organically or developed after severe mental or physical trauma.

I also thought of my favorite quote, gleaned from the audiobook The Wisdom of Mr. Rogers: "There isn't anyone you couldn't love, once you've heard their story."


Before I stopped at my office, I had another stop to make, to visit another female client, almost the same age, at the Douglas County Jail. This client, I'll call her Amber, I've known for a few years. She landed back in jail a week or so ago on a misdemeanor charge of driving under suspension, which led to the discovery of her current warrant and landed her in the "stony lonesome." I was actually secretly relieved to get a chance to speak with her as she has both felony possession of meth charges as well as a recently filed Motion to Terminate Parental Rights to contend with.

There are three court systems in the Douglas County Courthouse. From the criminal defendant's perspective, she faces misdemeanor charges in County Court, felonies in District and neglect charges, which aren't criminal in nature, in Juvenile Court.

Amber, like a lot of people, has "charges" pending in all three.

When I meet her in jail, her voice is barely audible, a hoarse whisper. We talk for close to an hour, at first reminiscing about how hers was the only termination of parental rights case I have ever "won" out of perhaps 20 cases.

I remind her of the time she showed up at my office after I told her that "if she really wanted to get sober, she should come talk to me." Now, I'd said this to clients in her state before, just as I often offered to create resumes for people who complained of tough job searches. While these offers made me sound like a saint, I had learned from experience that virtually no one showed up. Sometimes I offered it up simply to see if they'd take me up on the offer, but few ever did.

But Amber was different. She showed up, reminding me of my offer, and making me realize that I had no clue about what to tell her. I knew enough to steer her in the right direction and also enough not to give her any money as she'd likely take a detour on the way to the good place if I gave her the means to score at the bad one.

So I called the A.A. central office and gave her directions. When she saw it was a couple miles away, she asked for gas money. It sounds silly now, but I gave her $3, thinking that this would not be enough to buy a "Five piece" which I knew were sold just a few blocks from court. While she was a meth user and not a "crackhead" I knew that while crack was devastatingly cheap, meth wasn't exactly a designer drug.

On the way out that day, feeling guilty about only giving her enough for a gallon of gas, I saw her eyeing the food on our office table, the leftovers of an office "food day." When I told her to help herself, she grabbed a few cookies, stuffing her pockets, the way a kid might at Halloween.

Later, I told this story in court and, combined with her efforts at A.A. and clean drug tests, her rights to her children were not terminated, making Amber one of my few "success stories," at least for the time being.

A few months later, she fell off the wagon again, turned up pregnant and ended up relinquishing the rights to her older children in exchange for a fresh start with her unborn child. Shortly after this child was born, however, she was gone again, turning up occasionally and picking up more charges along the way, and eventually landing her in jail, where I met her today.

We talked for perhaps an hour about her predicament, her myriad cases and her rough life. She assured me that this time she'd truly given herself to God. I'd heard this before and had learned to believe my eyes and not my ears, but still thought of it as a good sign.

I'd heard before that she was raped when she was younger but had never asked her directly. When I cautiously raised the subject, she told me she was raped at age 11 by a stranger. When I asked what happened she told me she "thinks the cops got him" but went on to say that she didn't hear what happened and that "that's when things fell apart. She described hearing voices, cutting her arms repeatedly and eventually even starting fires, before ending up in juvenile detention.

She paused, pulling that orange jumpsuit sleeve down further on her arm, looking up at the block wall, towards the flourescent window, seemingly thinking back on this period of her life for the first time in years.

Then she quietly said, as if she'd just realized it, "Before that, I was a ballerina."

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